A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
30 November 2022
Tucked back behind the tracks, behind the platform where stray dogs outnumber the waiting passengers, the old train shed is still. A blanket of snow muffles the noise from outside so that the empty building’s own sounds seem amplified – the groaning of tired girders, the splatter of icy slush falling in through broken windows. Underfoot, the crunch of broken glass. The air smells of stale tar and gives the impression that this building hasn’t seen use in decades. But once upon a time, Fetești was on the way to everywhere.
By the end of the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, Romania’s Black Sea port at Constanţa stood at a crossroads between empires. North of the Danube lay the Romanian principalities under the guardianship of the Great Powers, while to the south, Bulgaria toiled under Ottoman rule. The war had greatly disrupted commerce across the Black Sea, but in the years that followed plans were drawn to improve the transport of produce from the grain-rich Danube river lands to the seaports.
The first suggestion was for a canal, that would cut straight from Cernavodă port, on the Danube, to the Black Sea at Constanţa; but a later study found that a railway would prove a cheaper and more efficient solution. In 1857, a British engineering firm – the Danube and Black Sea Railway Company (DBSR) – was granted permission by the Ottoman Empire to construct the line.
Under the coordination of civil engineer John Trevor Barkley and his brothers, the company used local stone and sleepers, but supplied many of the other materials on ships from England. They used local labour: a huge workforce was mobilised between 1858-60, as every villager from Rasova to Hârşova was ordered to take part in building embankments and laying the line. The historian Petre Covacef shares a 1904 quote from a Rasova resident, who worked on the line in the Carasu valley:
“I worked with ox carts and filled the pond with earth for two years; the English paid us well with Turkish money” (in 150 Years of the Evolution of Railways in Dobrogea, 1860-2010).
The Cernavodă-Constanţa line was inaugurated on 4 October 1860, in the presence of various British, Ottoman and Romanian dignitaries. Initially it had just four stations along a 65 km track, each one with grain warehouses that gathered the produce from surrounding farms. The economist Dionisie Pop Marţian was there when the first train pulled down the line into Constanţa, and for the local newspaper he wrote:
“The Barkley brothers and Co., with a capital of 21,000,000 [Romanian leu], have established this ‘iron road,’ now dedicated to trade and communication, in just three years.”
The new line would soon be extended further inland. It already drew a straight line from the closest branch of the Danube Delta to the sea, but before long it had crossed the river, and the fields beyond, to link the next channel too – the Danube’s Borcea branch – at Fetești. Construction of the Fetești depot began in the 1880s. In 1890 the architect Anghel Saligny (author of the famous King Carol I Bridge at Cernavodă, a national monument) designed a railway bridge over the Borcea branch, and the new depot – named Fetești-Gară – was additionally equipped with a diesel-fed power plant, consisting of four engines producing a total of 285 kW.
During the years of communism in Romania, the country’s infrastructure was completely overhauled to service a newly mechanised approach to agriculture. New factories and refineries studded the horizon, while all arable land came under the management of a nationwide collective farming project. For a while, political prisoners and those expelled from the capital would be forcefully relocated to the rural east of Romania, to work on these farms, leading some to nickname this region “the Romanian Siberia.”
Fetești was ideally located to become a major regional rail nexus: sat on the bank of the Danube, halfway from the capital to the sea – by both road and rail – and surrounded by fertile farmlands. Fetești-Gară oversaw the train line that bisected eastern Romania, between Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union which bordered Romania on its northern and eastern sides. In addition to its existing power plant the station was developed with a complex of train hangars, maintenance workshops, warehouses and silos, as well as new residential blocks for rail workers.
However by the 1990s, in post-communist Romania, Fetești-Gară began to fall apart. It had been developed for very specific models of state-centralised commerce and agriculture; but none of that really made sense any more, once independent haulage companies started offering more cost-effective freight solutions by road, and independent producers increasingly established private depots on their own territories. Fetești-Gară found itself surplus to requirements, and the shrinking state could neither afford, nor justify, its continued operation.
Fetești train station still works. These days it’s a regular regional station, with a couple of platforms, serving a town of 30,000 people. But behind the platforms loom the shuttered-up buildings of the former rail depot.
Antiquated trains, electric and steam and some dated as early as the 1920s, stand rusting on disconnected stretches of track. Apparently two of the steam locomotives – valuable heritage specimens – now belong to the Ministry of Culture, who have ruled that they may only be restored by certified experts working in an authorised repair shop. But as no such facility exists in Romania, instead they’ve just been left here in the snow. Off to one side a crescent of hangars are arranged around a railway turntable. It’s an impressive piece of engineering, though its anyone’s guess when it last worked.
Inside the old train shed nearby, the winter sun spills through coloured glass to illuminate a spacious, pillared hall. Cargo hooks hang on chains. In one corner, there’s a blanket and some bones where a stray dog has bedded down for the night. To that dog this is just a convenient shelter – it has no idea that once this hall was full of life, with teams of workers busily oiling the wheels of a newly industrialised state. But in time that state moved on, and now Fetești-Gară, for the most part, really is no more than those dogs perceive it to be: a collection of spaces and objects, cloaked in the aroma of decades-old tar, and gradually falling apart.
P.S. Any train experts reading this?
I know next-to-nothing about trains. So I haven’t been able to identify any of the trains in these photographs. If you can though, I would be very grateful to hear from you – and I’ll gladly add those details to the captions.
This article was greatly aided by the work of Railway Pro, ZIUA de Constanţa, and also my good friend Ovidiu Neacșu – with whom I visited Fetești during our 2018 Romania-Bulgaria tour. If you’re ever visiting Romania I highly recommend giving Ovidiu’s tours a look.