This article was published in Narrow Lines 185

A ticket to the Moon

Being an extract from, ‘Railway Holiday in Thalnia’, David & Charles, 1965.

Győrsmarabű. A Marronĝacan word, the very pronunciation of which manages to engender a sense of foreboding. Translating roughly into English as ‘The Mountains of the Moon’, it applies to that part of the Marronĝaco Massif traversed by the Jakarutu branch. In contrast, Thalnians simply refer to the area as La Tegmentadelamondo, which translates more prosaically, albeit less poetically, as, ‘the Roof of the World’. It is a world far removed from the ordinary. Few of the lower valley Altonians that I had met in the course of my travels exploring the AFK had ever ventured into this wild, remote upland area and fewer, it seemed, wished to do so. Traditionally this blasted moorland was the home of the storm gods of Marronĝacan mythology and allegedly frequented by werewolves, hobgoblins and the like. Today the obscurity endures. The area is a “Closed Zone”, a region where travel is curtailed due to military restrictions. Contrary to the usual hospitable welcome offered by the Marronĝacajoj, outsiders are not encouraged to linger and a permit is mandatory if an overnight stay is envisaged.

Changing trains at Ithilarak, I reflect that the line has already climbed to a height of 642 metres during the 47 km journey from Relforka, an inconsequential elevation compared to the altitude of my eventual destination, Jakarutu. It becomes apparent, upon leaving the Fenditavalat train, that Thalnian is a language but rarely spoken hereabouts, the impenetrable dialect of the Győrsmarabű, (a variety of the Marronĝacan), holding sway. Enquiries in Thalnian for the ’ejzuxos’ or ‘eagle’, (all branchline trains seem to acquire a nickname), are, however, courteously answered and I am directed towards the train standing in the loop behind the railcar. Here locomotive 202, a venerable 2-6-0RT, heads a mixed train of two four wheeled vans, tailed by an ancient six-wheel brake, which also provides the passenger accommodation. This is the maximum size of train permitted to work over this difficult section of railway. The coach has been fitted with a rack brake, the pinions of which engage the rack in the event of a breakaway, and is always marshalled at the bottom of the train. The line is worked by rack and adhesion, with the engine pulling the train, rather than as a pure rack railway, where the engine shoves from the bottom. In effect, the branch is a semi-autonomous railway, almost a cousin of the AFK, as the rack rail precludes the use of much standard equipment and the line’s remoteness insulates it from officialdom. Things are done differently here, and the branch train leaves in its own good time, rather later than advertised, once the crew have finished their coffee and pastries in the station buffet. There is precious little custom and I have no difficulty in securing a compartment to myself. Upon leaving ‘the foot of the stairs’, as the Győrsmarabűri diffidently label Ithilarak, the line enters an avalanche shelter, the engine engages a section of rack rail, set out upon the Strub principle, and begins to climb, vertiginously.
  
Changing trains at Ithilarak. The ejzuxos waits to leave. Where eagles dare?!
  
Once out of the shelter, pine forests crowd the train, thinning gradually as the train climbs ever higher, rack sections accounting for five of the first seven kilometres travelled. By the time that the engine disengages its gear for the last time, and switches to simple, rather than compound, working, the train has left the sylvan scenery of the valleys far below, and entered upon a country cowering beneath the oppressive weight of a domineering sky. The windswept, open plateau is desolate, desolate indeed, and one can easily understand the derivation of the district’s name and the provenance of its superstitious reputation. An upland moor, the Győrsmarabű is a haunted land devoid of trees, although occasionally punctured by the underlying rock strata, emerging skeletally through the moor. Paradoxically, the barren landscape explains why the railway remains open in winter. Despite the heavy snowfalls, few blockages are experienced as the exposed route causes gales to blow the snow away from the line. To this end, the railway has been constructed upon a slightly elevated causeway, thus avoiding the problems experienced by the main line’s more sheltered route. The gales can blow too strongly, and the company has been obliged to install an anemometer, connected via the telegraph wires, so that trains can be prevented from leaving Ithilarak if the wind speeds are too high. (Shades of Owencarrow on the Lough Swilly!) Snowploughs are de rigueur, of course, to deal with the routine drifting, to a depth of a couple of feet or so, and 202 has hers permanently fitted. A winter evening’s journey on the last train, beneath lowering skies with the winds howling and the snows whipping horizontally past the train, is not, one imagines, an enticing prospect for the faint hearted.
  
Climbing vertiginously on the Strub rack leaving the sylvan scenery far below.
  
At length our convoy encounters a road and halts upon it, casually disregarding any inconvenience towards prospective motorists.  The thoroughfare is deserted as far as the eye can see and the snow poles marking its course drop over the flanks of the plateau in the far distance. Snow chains are obligatory during the winter, and the police fine road users who venture forth without them. Progress has been desultory since leaving the rack section and the line merges imperceptibly into the surrounding moorland vegetation. This parsimonious approach towards maintenance contrasts, markedly, with the lavish standards employed upon the steep climbs, where deep beds of granite ballast provide the immaculate roadbed demanded by rack operation.
  
The line merges imperceptably into the moorland beneath the domineering sky. The anemometer is inset into the top right of the photo.
  

Upon sticking my head out of the droplight to ascertain the reason for our delay, I observe that we have reached Győrsmarabű, a halt serving nowhere in particular and consequently named for the whole area. A few parcels are being left in the waiting room, for the shepherds, no doubt, who roam this wide expanse with their flocks during the summer. This latter building, incidentally, is more substantial than might initially be imagined, as it provides emergency shelter for stranded travellers during the winter, containing basic foodstuffs and fuel for the fireplace.  The AFK has foregone any pretence of bi-linguality in this forlorn location, the blue-enamelled nameboard being almost indecipherable due to rust. A short siding serves an oil well, the two holding tanks being fed by a pipeline, mainly hidden underground. It is occupied by a tanker, narrow gauge of course, as transporter wagons cannot traverse the rack sections. Later researches reveal that the semi-derelict well taps a miniscule field and cannot maintain constant production. As is the norm, in such cases, it is worked intermittently to allow the oil to collect in the underground reservoir before pumping commences. The resulting tankers of crude oil are unloaded at Relforka into standard gauge wagons that are forwarded for refining. The occupants of the lower valleys view the whole venture with wry amusement, as, being barely viable, it is perceived as a sop by the Regional Government to prevent rural depopulation.

A slight jolt disturbs my contemplation of the problems endemic to the mountain economies of the European peripheries, and the journey recommences. The line drops slightly before gaining Jakarutu, the terminus of the line at 1042 metres asl, listed in the timetables as being 29.4 kms out from Ithilarak. The cognoscenti appreciate that it is no such thing, but, as is usually the case throughout Europe in such circumstances, the railway has charged 20 kilometres’ fares for the 5 kilometres of rack sections, as a concession to the expenses incurred in maintaining these sections to the necessary high standards. It therefore lists the inflated distance. Off the beaten track and with but two trains per day in each direction, Jakarutu exudes an air of mystery, tantalising the intrepid traveller. The timetable, furthermore, dissuades frivolous travel, the train returning within an hour of its morning arrival. The persistent, however, with access to an Orario Thalnia, will discover from table 742 that a Postbus traverses the Forest of Naclos, scales the road crossed earlier in the day, and leaves Jakarutu in the late afternoon for Urteno. This is my intended line of retreat, although potential travellers should note the caveat regarding the reliability of the service during the winter.
  
A sop to prevent rural depopulation.
The intended line of retreat. A Posto Tomalia bus collects mail from the halt.
  
The town itself is generally unremarkable, its allure being its remoteness, but I enjoy a pleasant afternoon at one of the cafes in the main square, having visited the church and the castle, and walked around those remaining sections of the wall that are open to the public. The railway enters its station, on a shelf beneath the town, via a tunnel under an outlying ruined bastion of these defences. The locomotive shed is, unusually, combined with the station building (as at Brassac on the Chemin de fer du Tarn) and there is barely room for the engine to clear the toe of the points before gaining access to the run round. Once in the loop a chain is attached between the engine and the brake, to drag it clear of the points at the foot of the loop. The train crew are rather anxious that this manœuvre is not photographed, and I suspect that this is another example of the singular working methods frowned upon by officialdom. Having gained the downhill end of the train, more conventional moves deposit the wagons in the only siding. A discreet inspection of the consignment notes indicates that the contents are to be collected by the military garrison stationed in the town and that one contains live ammunition. The Thalnian army is, in the main, a part-time militia, but Jakarutu hosts a detachment of a full-time special operations regiment, thereby investing the branch with a strategic significance that belies its appearance. Having finished its shunting, the engine takes on water, cleans its fire, and couples up to the brake prior to, once again, making the precipitous descent to civilisation.
  
Waiting to descend to civilisation.
Go to photos of the branch