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Published by membersonly, 2020-02-19 16:26:07


22nd February 2020

February 2020 BLNI Extra No 62
PTG Tour to Moldova – Report

[F06] – The Tour Report
Advertised as a one off opportunity for a Railtour around Moldova for a group of 40,
many regular European rail travellers including several BLS members met at the
nominated PTG Tours Hotel in Iași (pronounced Yash), Romania on Friday
13th September......
Tour Day 1 began with a short coach journey to the Iași suburb of Socola where the
FSSuO pair of Broad Gauge cross border services operated by Moldovan Railways (CFM)
to Chișinău via Ungheni commence. The PTG train was actually a hiring of the inbound
passenger working DMU due at 10:15 (from which several dozen alighted) as it was not
scheduled to return until 17:42. It was formed of a 4 coach rebuild of a Soviet era Ganz
built D1 and took the Group towards what was to be the first of numerous border
crossings. This CFM operated service runs in addition to the Romanian Railways (CFR)
two pairs a day from Iași main station via Socola to Ungheni and a daily overnight using
CFM coaches from București to Chișinău.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Chișinău Station Frontage
Inside Chișinău Station seen from the Platform

București to Chișinău Train arriving on time at Chișinău, passing the plinthed Steam Loco Er 765-63

The EGTRE Cross Borders entry mentions the track is dual 1435/1520 mm gauge
between Socola and Ungheni but it turned out they separate in two places, the first at
Socola where the station buildings are in between the one dead-end Broad Gauge track
used by the Moldovan terminator (with electrified standard gauge tracks beyond) and
the CFR passenger service tracks on the south side of the building. On departure the
separate broad gauge track curved away to be at maximum 100 metres north of the SG
passenger line but eventually came alongside although not becoming dual for 2 km.
They remained interlaced until over the border except at some CFR stations where it
split into separate gauge tracks/loops as there is insufficient space between four rails for
point work. The line runs through Ungheni Prut station in Romania and crosses the
border over a single interlaced track bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel opened in 1877,
but on approaching Ungheni station the Standard Gauge element became separate to
run on the east side of the sizeable Border Station buildings to reach either a platform
track or open air gauge changing area (with both overhead cranes and numerous bogie
lifting jacks), or further on, a transhipment area. A conducted tour of the gauge
changing facility revealed that the track with the jacks had just two running rails plus
check rails, so it was clear they were laid at varying width reaching broad or standard at
the respective exits. Coincidentally, a traveller posted a report of a Chișinău to București
journey on ERG the week before the PTG Tour who confirmed the assumption by
advising CFM locomotives of each gauge were used for the shunts in and out of the
jacking area. [See also BLNI1342.479 for detailed description of the gauge changing
procedure – Ed.]

Ungheni Gauge Changer showing the Check Rails with the Station Building in the Background

Now in Moldova, the Tour "proper" commenced with a transfer to a two coach CFM
train of typical Russian design, a couchette with four berths in each open compartment
in day mode, the other a Restaurant car, with haulage by a Czech built ChME3 diesel,
one of 8200 provided to the then Soviet bloc countries between 1963 and 1994... CFM
stands for Calea Ferată din Moldova and is the sole railway operator in the Republic of
Moldova responsible for passenger and cargo transportation, as well as railway
infrastructure maintenance within the country. The total length of the network (as of
2009) was 1232 kilometres, of which 1218 kilometres are 1520 mm (broad gauge) and
14 kilometres 1435 mm (standard gauge).

The first day’s plan was to travel the line along the country’s western border after
hopefully covering all three sides of the Ungheni triangle, but that manoeuvre was
apparently not in the train crew timings so we set off direct towards Bălți (pronounced
Belts). Just 6 km after leaving Ungheni the Tour train was involved in a serious accident
at an AOC-type crossing with flashing lights, your correspondent seeing a 4x4
approaching towards the right hand side of the train, not at excessive speed, but fast
enough and not slowing down that he asked friends sitting by the window on his left to
confirm the vehicle had reached their side of the track. It clearly didn't as evidenced by
a large bang, dust cloud and a rapid train braking, and 400 metres later the train
stopped with the 4x4 amazingly still upright but wedged at right angles to the front of
the locomotive. The car had been hit on the driver’s door and although its single
occupant survived and was taken away in an ambulance, he later passed away in
hospital. Remarkably the tour train was allowed to continue and was on its way with the
same train crew almost exactly one hour later, the delay enough to defer the
planned Bălți CFM Shed visit until the next day but, and a first for your scribe, the Group
transport from the station to the Hotel was by chartered trolleybus via a guided visit
around the network’s Depot!

Day 2 was with a different ChME3 diesel (yesterday's had slight coupling and step stair
damage) heading east from Bălți beyond the current CFR passenger limit at Rogojeni on
a freight line that runs to the Ukraine through Transnistria, the area of Moldova that
wished for closer ties with Russia after the dissolution of the USSR due to its majority
Russian speaking population. There was a civil war in 1992 over this point and although
the ceasefire has held, the political status of Transnistria remains unresolved and even
today it is only officially recognised by less than a handful of other Countries. On
crossing the substantial River Dniester Bridge to Ribniţa station the train was met by
Transnistria Border Police and participants were asked to remain on the train.

Tour train at Şoldăneşti on the on the non-passenger section beyond Rogojeni on the return from
Ribniţa in Transnistria

However Passports were not inspected and in due course participants were allowed off
the train but on condition all stayed within the station area. Photos were also
permitted. The Tour introduction had warned that travel beyond Ribniţa may not be
approved and that was the case so, as this would be our only off train venture in
Transnistria and with the station on an embankment overlooking a bus station and car
park, it was noted by your writer that most vehicles had registration plates of a different
style from Moldova. Raising this point with our guides, they suggested that cars
registered locally are prohibited on Moldovan roads and sure enough
states: “There is an ongoing debate between the Moldovan authorities and the
government of Transnistria on a design to be used on Transnistrian plates that is
acceptable for Moldova. Moldovan authorities have been reported to confiscate
Transnistrian plates as the registration of vehicles in the Transnistrian region is illegal for

Moldovans. Vehicle registration plates of Transnistria are valid only in Abkhazia,
Belarus, Russia, South Ossetia and Ukraine”.
Other Group members then located a shop downstairs in the station building and even
though it was thought only Transnistria Rouble would be accepted which are unavailable
and not accepted elsewhere, other currencies were taken but with small denomination
change given in what can only be described as plastic Casino chips masquerading as

The rest of the day was a return to Bălți by the same route for the delayed CFM shed
visit enlivened by a power car of a D1 DMU and a single part of a 3TE diesel running
off/on the shed respectively with blunt ends leading and drivers leaning out of their cabs
to see where they were going........

Day 3 headed North West from Bălți towards and then over the Ukrainian border but
before then a 28 km long freight branch from Rediul Mare to Brătușeni. This was taken
at painstakingly slow speed but before returning a request was made and agreed to for
the train to be reversed to the CFM boundary 1 km beyond the station as the three
freight branches further on are all private. Once back on the main line the special ran
to Ocniţa station for reversal via a short connecting line allowing access from the south
to the north side platforms as opposed to the direct freight only triangle which looked
used but was slightly overgrown. As nice as travelling this non-passenger side of the
triangle would have been, as we were only travelling further north in one direction, it
would have been a long way to have to go back for what would have been the only
missed CFM passenger track of the trip!! This reversal did bring an unexpected switch of
loco from the by now repaired original ChME3 to a single part of a 3TE, much
appreciated by most participants. On arrival at Moghiliov-Podolskii in the Ukraine after
crossing the Dniester River again, the Group endured a 4 hour coach ride on some
terrible quality roads to the city of Chernivtsi; on one occasion the road being on top of a
large dam.

Day 4 With the PTG charter train returning empty over the border back to Ocniţa in
Moldova, after the road ordeal of the day before the group could fortunately return
most of the way on an Ukrainian Railways train, on the outbound working of a one pair a
day scheduled service from Chernivtsi to Sochireni. Advance information suggested this
could be a mixed hauled by an M62 but only the latter was the case on the day. The
train was just 2 coaches and being a party of 40 odd with guides etc. we were allocated
exclusive use of one of them, understandably so as the train was not busy and the group
were the only travellers by the journey’s end. This passenger service used to continue
to Ocniţa until August 2013, (later short term night train use) but that cross border
section is now freight only. Even so the line itself is well known in enthusiast circles as it
starts in the Ukraine, crosses into and calls at stations in Moldova, returns through
Ukraine on a corridor section, then back into Moldova with calls before returning to the
Ukraine, with full passport controls including a stamp at four exit/entry points!
Therefore no surprise to learn that the journey of 158 km with 19 calls is scheduled to
take 5h 34m, an average of under 29 km/h.

PTG had requested our Moldovan train be allowed to come to Sochireni to collect us but
we had been warned approval was unlikely as the rail crossing has no border post and is
some way from a road crossing and so it proved, so the previous day’s coach was
awaiting our arrival and the party endured a 1½ hour long wait at the nearest road
border crossing en route to Ocniţa. The road was not especially busy, but all vehicles
were being thoroughly checked and in front of us was a van with what can only be
described as the contents of a house clearance with almost everything removed and
checked. One person amongst us suggested our delay was due to the Border Guards
playing Country Bingo with the Visa’s and stamps in all our Passports..... Whatever the
reason, the time taken meant we were late for our booked Ocniţa departure returning
south, with a wag heard to say later in the dining car when the train took the north to
south Bălți avoiding curve during dinner that the group was now enjoying a meal in
the Balti Triangle....... The final destination that night was the Moldovan capital
of Chișinău, repeating the Day 1 outbound route from the Bălți curve until the Ungheni
avoider, with that and later travels unfortunately in the dark.

However the line from Chișinău to Ungheni and the omitted north to south curve could
be retrieved the next day outside of the group plans at participants own expense as the
Itinerary for day 5 was a CFM Chișinău Depot and Works visit plus a trip to the 200 km
network of tunnels at Mileștii Mici, better known for over 50 km of them containing over
2 million bottles of wine and being the largest cellar in the world. Needless to say your
scribe and quite a few others did the track.... an uneventful day with tickets easily
purchased for the 09:03 DMU local outbound, and for the 15:47 return which was the
last leg of a 33 hr long Moscow to Chișinău journey, with the train arriving on time....
Perhaps surprisingly the fare was the same on both trains, admittedly after selecting
2nd (i.e. not 3rd) on the DMU at 38 Moldovan Lei, (around £1·75) for the 107 km. Your
writer then did some rapid tourism on return to Chișinău with a brisk walk to the
dripping with gold Nativity Cathedral and the nearby Triumphal Arch celebrating Russia's
19th-century victory over the Ottoman Empire.

Arrival of a CFR Desiro at Ungheni from Iași. Note the flimsy Customs area fencing on the platform,
it was a solid fence to the left of the photo as are the station buildings and the broad gauge tracks....

Gauge changing facility also in view as used by the București – Chișinău overnights.

if you thought the previous day of cross border journeys was remarkable, day 6 topped
that and would be an unbelievable quiz question although perfectly true. Namely there
is a railway in Europe with a start point in a country within a country, crosses between
two countries seven times which currently has two isolated passenger services, one of
which serves stations in both countries........The answer is the line from Bender in
Transnistria via Basarabeasca in Moldova and the onwards clockwise circle via Reni in
the Ukraine and Cahul in Moldova back to Basarabeasca!
That day 6 had started (early.....) from Chișinău and like Ribniţa earlier there were no
passport requirements crossing into Transnistria on stopping (but not alighting) at

Bender 3, and just four of the seven border crossings were stamped as some were
corridor. Fortunately some station stops allowed details of the isolated passenger
services to be confirmed as due to their remoteness, their continued existence had even
been doubted. They are from Zloți to Basarabeasca (all in Moldova) plus Etulia
(Moldova) to Reni (Ukraine) which is actually operated by Ukrainian Railways. Both are
two pairs per day, were seen and were operated by ChME3 Diesels and 2 or 1 coach
respectively and are now listed in EGTRE Moldovan Sparse Services.

Considering the number of border crossing on this Tour, it was interesting to note the
differences in processing the Tour Group; this ranged from Officers walking through the
train with portable passport scanning kits, through collecting and taking passports off
the train into a station building for inspection to only a quick visual check, or in one case
everyone off the train to walk through a station building (admittedly the Group was
actually leaving the train at that point....). The oddest was on this day at Frykatsey on
entering the Ukraine for the seventh time on the trip, as passports were collected and
taken to a car, we assumed for checking and return; however the train departed as did
the car, and we were not reunited with our stamped passports until 14 km later on
arriving at Reni as the road between the two places was more direct! Slightly unnerving
and raising the question do they do this on the scheduled passenger service? Then just
a few kilometres further on from Reni and on leaving the Ukraine the train stopped
away from any station on tracks above Moldova's only Danube Port Customs Office
at Giurgiuleşti which is at the junction of the interlaced SG/BG bridge into Romania.
Unexpectedly whilst waiting for Passport processing we were allowed off the train to
take photos.... with a rifle wielding Soldier in the distance at a cabin protecting the
bridge entrance. The Tour had unfortunately been refused permission to travel this
cross border line towards Galaţi in Romania as the broad gauge tracks were not
considered safe for passenger use but freight traffic continues on both gauges as SG
tank wagons were at Giurgiuleşti and some of the Group had seen BG wagons in the
Galaţi area in the days before the Tour. So the PTG train continued north on a line
opened only in 2008 to the overnight stop in Cahul.

Day 7 completed the clockwise circuit via Prut back to Basarabeasca, noting en route
that the interlaced cross border line from Fălciu in Romania to Prut-2 had been severed
both gauges at the junction, confirming this line has closed. When open this had been a
locals only crossing for most of the time and a few Tour attenders provided anecdotes of
their failures and successes before the passenger service ended; it is believed in
2011/12. Next was a planned Depot visit in Basarabeasca but before this came a
highlight for many, especially the keen photographers, as the special arrived slightly
early at the “V” junction station of Abaclia, 10 km west of Basarabeasca, so participants
were allowed off the train. It became apparent that a freight was coming towards the
Group, and it proved to be a grain train hauled by a 3TE10M, nothing unusual about that
by class except this was the only time on the Tour that it was a complete 3TE, i.e. with all
three units, on every other occasion they had been working as a single or a double. This
apparently is quite rare and better still, it was being banked by a combination of half a
2TE10M and half a 2TE10L as Moldova is believed to be the only national network in the
old Soviet bloc still using “Ls” which were built in the early 1960s.

3TE10M at Abaclia on a Grain Train……..
……..and another view of the same Train

2TE10L returning to Basarabeasca shed after banking grain freight to somewhere beyond Abaclia

Basarabeasca Depot is around 1 km from the station on a stub of a closed cross border
line towards Artsyz in the Ukraine. On arriving at Basarabeasca it was unknown how we
would get there for an arranged visit as it would be fair to say the PTG Tour Manager,
our ex-BLNI Editor Paul Griffin, was finding it difficult and frustrating establishing
programme details as arranged by the Facilitators or being dropped late changes or
omissions. This included changes to train timings, being advised one of the booked
hotels had closed for refurbishment and, when en route to the replacement (lower
quality), finding it could not be accessed by our coach, two nights when some of the
party were bounced to a different hotel, no coach transfers arranged to reach hotels
after a late arrival through meal location changes, city tours added which had not been
requested etc., etc. so Paul deserves a huge amount of credit for sorting out all these
and other issues.

On arriving at Basarabeasca station the Group were told to wait near the train but then
without Paul knowing, a ChME3 diesel appeared and coupled to the rear of our train to
pull our coaches into the Depot..... The original ChME3 stayed attached to the other end,
then whilst the Group enjoyed a herding cats like Tour around the Depot area, including
more photos of the half 2TE10M, half 2TE10L which had nicely returned from their
banking duties, our train was double shunted across from where our walking Tour
started to where it ended! Cue panic amongst those wanting to record/travel every last
piece of possible track but fortunately the same double shunt took place on departure
with everybody aboard!

Tour Train being shunted in Basarabeasca Depot

The Tour then headed back towards Chișinău but via a different route from the day
before as a “Transnistria avoiding line” was opened in 2005 from Căinari to Revaca. This
44 km long line as opposed to 117 km via Bender was, in most part, a reinstatement of a
1944 WW2 damage closure except 7 km at the northern end on a new alignment from
that shown as closed in the 1995 Quail Map Book of this region.

Day 8. The last full day of the Tour was on the CFM operated scheduled service
from Chișinău to Odessa in the Ukraine which for those on the private trip to Ungheni
and back on Day 5 cleared Moldovan passenger track. Credit where credit is due as
apparently tickets for this train go on sale only three days before departure and the
Facilitators got them, all issued with our names and seat reservations on them with the
PTG Group completely filling the one first class coach of the four coach refurbished D1M
DMU plus a few of the second class seats as well. This train passes through and calls at
stations in Transnistria but again there were no passport controls and remnants of
electricity masts and stanchions from Bender towards Ukraine from a scheme aborted
following the short Transnistria/Moldovan war in 1992 could still be seen. Once in
Odessa after a 3h 36m run, those that wanted had a lunch followed by an unplanned
guided walking City Tour, or others such as your correspondent did a Ukrainian Railways
journey to Belgorod-Dnest as one BLS member’s research had established it was
possible to travel totally different routes in the western suburbs of Odessa on the out
and back journeys. Details in EGTRE Ukraine shortly if not already......

So ended a memorable and probably unique PTG Tour, and despite CFM allegedly
wishing to provide the same locomotive all week, it actually utilised 4 different ChME 3’s
and 1 part of a 3TE, plus 2 D1M DMUs and an Ukrainian M62 on service trains. Apart
from the modernised D1Ms, all traction, coaches and most wagons are currently pure

USSR era design so, as CFM have 12 new GE class TE33s on order for delivery by the end
of 2020, it was a good time to visit. Perhaps as one would expect considering no service
is that frequent, speeds were mainly ambling on poor track, a downhill 75 kmh being the
maximum on CFM metals in the week, where the track maintenance policy appeared to
be a 1 in 5 spot wooden sleeper with a concrete replacement, leaving 4 rotten or
cracked ones in place.... but perhaps surprisingly the ride quality was good. Freight was
seen on all lines without being heavy and the whole Moldovan network is single track
except for two sections between Chișinău and Revaca and the Chișinău to Ungheni line
between Cornești and Pîrlița. Statistically Moldova remains Europe's poorest nation
with per capita incomes apparently half that of Albania but the country had nothing like
the poor parts readily seen in Albania/Bulgaria/Slovakia nor a seriously depressed feel to
it. What was obvious with the usual relics of the collapse of heavy industry after the
disintegration of the USSR is that Moldova appears reliant on being one of the most
productive agricultural regions and major supplier of vegetables, especially maize, plus
fruits and grapes (in the south and east of the Country) in south-eastern Europe, due to
the very rich soil and a temperate continental climate. Wine production is a historic
Moldovan industry and they hope to expand wine tourism; as, being honest, the Group
did not come across much of major architectural merit and what memorials they have
seemed to relate to the Soviet period. All in all, a fascinating USSR based rail network
holiday, with a number of people on the Tour heard to say the rolling hills in the south of
the country made the scenery look very much like the UK. So if you have a chance to
visit the railways do so, just don’t expect where you stay to be full of tourist attractions
as well!

[All Photos: Ian Hutton unless individually credited]

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