Turkish Steam Railways by Mick Pope
Turkey is probably best known, in recent years, as a holiday destination for British sun-seekers and being a neighbour of war-torn Syria. Over the centuries Turkey, a country these days with one small foot in Europe and a larger one in Asia, has been the centre of a huge empire under the Ottomans and at times the focus of international conflicts. As a result of this strategic position various countries and alliances have had an interest in Turkey’s internal affairs including its transportation infrastructure. Modernized, under Kemel Attaturk, to a greater extent than most Middle Eastern states, Turkey has centres of heavy industry and although the majority of the population is concentrated in the west and coastal areas, it has cities in the east that need lines of communication and also to provide transit from the countries on its eastern border – Iraq, Iran Syria and Russia. Turkish steam railways, now government run, had backers from a variety of countries when first built and this is also reflected in the builders of many of its locomotives which came from manufacturers in, among others, Germany, France, the US, and Great Britain.
A lover of and photographer of railways, when the last steam locomotives were withdrawn from the national system in the UK in 1968, I found I had a big hole in my life. At first I filled it by tracking the last steam locomotives that clung on in industrial service in the UK but these were rapidly disappearing, a process accelerated by the decline in the coal industry. I was just finishing university and starting in my first job. Once settled in the latter, and getting married along the way, I realised that I would have to travel further afield to satisfy my appetite for steam locomotives. China was still building them, India was a heavy user and South Africa had some magnificent beasts but all these places were inaccessible for either political or cost reasons. So I concentrated at first on Eastern Europe where the communist states still ran some steam hauled services. I was also aware that Turkey was just that bit further and had a fascinating variety of locomotives but a visit there went on the back burner until the 1980s when I had the financial means to travel further afield and an understanding wife.
A solo trip to Turkey was a bit of a step too far in organizational terms and so I signed up for a 1984 tour with the Railway Travel and Photography group with whom I had travelled to South Africa in 1980. This blog is as much about the adventure of the tour as to the steam locomotive content. The normal modus operandi for such a tour was to divide the group up to travel around in a fleet of hire cars to pre-booked hotels, something I had experience of in South Africa. So it was that we arrived at Istanbul airport and were divided up with two drivers and one non-driver per car. On this trip, and a later one in 1985, my co-driver was Nick, owner of a well known company producing railway related videos. Nick had rallied cars and, being no slow-coach myself, we tended to arrive at our pre-booked destinations somewhat in advance of the rest of the party! I also returned in 1988 for a last look, a solo trip as I had more confidence.
Turkey is not a country for drivers of a nervous disposition. The code of the Turkish driver is ‘insha allah’ which roughly translates as ‘the will of god’. In practical terms this means that, on a blind corner, one is very likely to meet a car head-on driven on the wrong side of the road. The belief behind this could be put in western terms as ‘if your number is up there’s nothing you can do about it’. We saw many wrecked cars and other vehicles – a coach from Iran abandoned on its side with luggage strewn across the roadside, in one place half a horse that had presumably half crossed the road. Our own group managed to damage most of their vehicles in some way or other, one being a complete write-off. Our own vehicle suffered a bizarre accident. It was the time of the sugar beet harvest [lots of extra trains] and the roads were full of overloaded trucks. While following one along a dirt road at 60mph it hit a bump and a dozen of the roots flew off and bounced along the road towards us. Most missed or hit a glancing blow but a few miles on the temperature gauge hit red and we realised that something was wrong. On stopping we found a round hole in the front grill and a sticky mess embedded in the radiator. We crept to the next town and stopped. While standing with bonnet open scratching our heads a local approached and offered the comment that a relative had a garage and could help us. We followed him to a shanty among the roadside shops where a beaming mechanic offered the typical ‘No problem’ response one often gets in less developed countries. While we sat drinking sweet Turkish tea in the cafe opposite, they whipped out the radiator, welded the leaks, pressure tested it and reinstalled it, all for about £5!
Turkey has some amazing scenery – off the top of my head the cave houses at Goreme, the semi-deserts of the far east and the camel serai’s, fortress like stone buildings with stables for the camels underneath come to mind. At one of the latter we encountered some delightful fair-haired, green and blue eyed, children who might have come from a totally different world to the typical darker haired Turkish children.
And so, briefly, a mention of the raison d’être of the trip – the trains. The service tended not to be very frequent but often quite slow and so it was possible to overtake them and photograph them at several different places. On a couple of occasions I drove side by side with a train on a parallel road while Nick hung from the window videoing it. Some scenic locations were fabulous. I recall in particular the line from Zonguldak to Cankiri where huge American built locos struggled over steep gradients, at times assisted by another locomotive at the rear, or the line to Kars where the landscape resembled the moon. In complete contrast was the system of branch lines in the west around the lakes at Burdur and Egridir. Here the sugar beet season saw extra trains hauled by a variety of German built locomotives of various vintages and a complex timetable of passenger trains shuttling back and forth.
All this is sadly now gone and my recent trips to Turkey have involved sitting in the sun sipping cold beers. The railways did make a half-hearted attempt to run tourist trains but the infrastructure dictates that this would probably only appeal to a small market of diehard enthusiasts and the skills to maintain steam locomotives have been lost. Still, I have my photos and videos to remind me of these adventures. I share some of the former in my latest book.
Mick Pope's book Turkish Steam Railways is available for purchase now.