The Viseu de Sus forestry railway, located in the far north of Romania close to the border with the Ukraine, is an outstanding example of technical cultural heritage. The line is known as the “Vaser Valley Railway” – “vaser” comes from the local German word for water, in the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Travelling over a network of some 60 kilometers of narrow-gauge track, you will still find wood-burning steam locomotives running alongside several diesels and railcars. CFF Viseu de Sus (“CFF” is the Romanian abbreviation for Caile Ferate Forestiere, meaning “Forestry Railway”) is the last remaining forestry railway in Europe.
The track was laid at the gauge of 760 mm (the standard for narrow gauge lines within the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The line runs alongside the Vaser River with numerous curves, bridges and several tunnels, into a wild and romantic valley, high in the Carpathian Mountains. The railway opens up a vast area of isolated forest and mountain, without roads or villages but with plenty bears and wolves instead!
The industrial use of timber in the Vaser Valley began at the beginning of the 18th century, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. German-speaking settlers explored the forest, harvested the timber, and transported it in log rafts down the river to the saw mills of Viseu de Sus. In 1932 the forestry railway was built – an enormous technical advance compared with the rafting.
Forestry railways were widespread across Europe, especially in the Carpathian Mountains. The operating principle was very simple: they followed the rivers, often necessitating tight curves – hence the use of the narrow gauge! The tracks were constructed so as to enable small locomotives to pull empty logging wagons up into the mountains and to let heavily loaded trains roll down under gravity to the saw mills in Viseu de Sus.
While forest roads replaced the railways in most European countries after 1945, the forestry railways in Romania survived much longer – in 1970 the State-run forestry administration still operated more than 3000 kilometres of railway. Even as late as 1986 new forestry steam locomotives were being built in Romania, and in 1989 more than 15 forestry railways were still in existence, totalling approximately 1000 kms of line.
The economic changes commencing in 1990 had a devastating impact on the State-run forestry railways of the “CFF”. Within a few years almost all were decommissioned and closed, and their locomotives and wagons were scrapped or sold. Only one of them is still operating – the Vaser River Railway. Importantly, it still serves its primary purpose – as a forestry railway for logging.
Ever since 2003 the railway system has been managed by the private Romanian corporation: “R.G. Holz Ltd”, which is also the owner of the depot area and most of the locomotives and wagons. However the railway infrastructure, along with most of the forest in the valley, are still State-owned.
During the last years the forestry railway has been receiving support from abroad, specifically from the foundation “Wassertalbahn” (“Vaser Valley Railway”). With assistance from Europe, some disused locomotives were restored and put back into service, new passenger coaches were purchased, and the depot and the historic station building at Viseu were refurbished. Around the station yard in Viseu de Sus, infrastructure is being established that takes account of the increasing demands of tourism in the Vaser Valley.
From 2005, regular passenger trains hauled by steam locos have been in operation for visitors and since 2007 the Vaser Valley has been under European protection as part of the Maramureș Mountains Nature Park.
The future of the Vaser Valley forestry railway is not yet fully assured – there are still many problems confronting it and all the people working there. But this wonderful railway has many friends all over the world and the number is constantly growing! Not least because of tourism, it looks very likely that Romania’s last forest railway will have a healthy future to look forward to.