When retirement is nonsense
[b]Everyone in Belarus knows Baranovichi, located 150km away from Minsk on the international Brest-Moscow route. Not only is it a major industrial centre, housing the largest cotton mill for miles around and various other enterprises, but it has two railway stations. An old steam engine is even in evidence in its coat of arms[/b]
In fact, the city only appeared thanks to the railway; in 1871, a steel track was laid from Smolensk to Minsk and Brest. It’s no wonder that the city is sometimes called the railway capital of Belarus and it’s perfectly logical that the first and most representative Museum of Railway Equipment countrywide is found there.
The railway celebrates its 150th anniversary in Belarus this year, with the Baranovichi — Poleskie platform boasting a solid matte black engine, placed on a pedestal; it radiates strength and solidity. Nearby is an old single-story red brick building, which houses Baranovichi branch of the Museum of Belarusian Railways. On the other side of the station, in a little park, among pine trees, is an open air two hectare exhibition of 70 old steam engines and carriages, as well as their younger relatives: diesel locomotives, wagons and various machines for constructing and maintaining steel track. Near a small building (the station keeper’s hut) is a huge ‘crane’ semaphore. Inside the hut, you can see his telegraph set, in its wooden case. Of course, there are plenty of other exhibits from the age of steam and coal smoke. You can almost hear the sharp whistle of the long-awaited locomotive. For anyone who loves machines and mechanisms, it’s a real treasure trove.
“Each day, up to ten excursion groups visit our museum,” explains my guide, the Chairman of the Veterans Council of the Baranovichi Branch of Belarusian Railways, Piotr Demidovich Tur. “Many are schoolchildren and students whose future will be connected one way or another with the railway. Filmmakers also often visit, as no other such rarities exist elsewhere. I’ve visited many museums — even in Germany and Russia — but have only seen carriages and locomotives. We have everything connected to railway life: from the hammer for driving spikes into sleepers, to the bell used to notify the departure of a train. Enterprises which have presented exhibits look after them for us.”
There’s no entrance fee for the museum, which is somewhat symbolic. After all, every exhibit is connected with the lives of local people. How can you charge an elderly man who devoted his life to the railway? Such devotion is impressive, with some families having worked in this industry for up to 300 years. The Mazyuk family has six generations of railway engineers, while the Yanovichs have five generations of machinists. The job of railwayman has always been difficult and filled with heavy responsibility but it has also been well-paid, steady employment with prestige. There is also an element of romance. Piotr Demidovich Tur grew up on the railways, beginning as a railroad master and eventually becoming a chief engineer. He still remembers seeing a steam locomotive, wrapped in smoke, for the first time, as a little boy.
Honourable engine-driver Vasily Ivanovich Skomorokh also often visits the museum. He began working for Belarusian Railways in 1962, and even drove the steam engine which now stands on the side-tracks at the museum: a class E, released back in 1934, made at Lugansk Locomotive Plant. Before ‘retirement’, it travelled over two million kilometres around the country, transporting a variety of goods.
Mr. Skomorokh tells us, “I first worked with steam engines, which burnt coal. It is 200km from here to Slutsk and back, where peat for the local power station was loaded. It took about six hours by road. The stoker would use eight to ten tonnes of coal for the furnace and the whole team would be black from the dust and smoke by the end of the trip. Of course, before we gave the engine to another crew, we’d have to wipe the cab with kerosene and then wipe it dry, so there wasn’t a speck of dust. Only then did we shower and rest. Even so, you could be called onto another train at any moment.”
There are many unique exhibits at the Baranovichi rail museum, including shunting triaxial trains for enterprises, and solid L class engines (released in 1946 and 1952, in Kolomna and Voroshilovgrad). The Soviet locomotive design greatly differs from that released in 1944 in Germany. Meanwhile, the biaxial heated goods van, invented in 1928, is fascinating. Visitors can inspect old coaches of various classes, as seen in historical films, and part of the exhibition is even devoted to railway troops (a formidable platform houses two large-calibre anti-aircraft machine-gun quad units). As early as 1876, Baranovichi had two railway companies, just ten years after the world’s first railway brigade was created, which later gave rise to an independent family of Russian troops.
A new display is being discussed, offering dioramas from the past. However, steam engines are not gone forever, still being used for training, retraining and skills upgrading, in Gomel. Brest also boasts its Museum of Railway Equipment, where you can apply for an internship operating steam engines. Of course, diesel and electric locomotives remain dominant in driving trains but Belarusian Railways is considering adding a retro train between Grodno and Porechie (where the first railway traffic in modern Belarus joined St. Petersburg-Warsaw route, nearly 150 years ago). The original railway station from those days still exists in Porechie.
We know the history of Belarusian Railways but what of its present and future? We can already traverse all Belarus via modern European-level train, at the greatest of speeds, in streamlined trains manned by conductors in stylish uniforms. You can arrive comfortably in Minsk from Baranovichi within half an hour. Belarusian Railways has bought ten Swiss Stadler trains: a sign of more progress (however much we may long for the nostalgia of steam travel). In remote parts of Belarus, where there are fewer travellers, the first independent rail buses have been launched. Our whole system of passenger traffic follows the European model, divided into four categories: local, regional, inter-regional and international.
Goods transportation is also growing. In the first half of 2012, more than 21.9 million tonnes of goods were transported by rail from Russia to Belarus: up almost 12 percent on 2011. In the other direction, exports by rail are up by nearly three-quarters. Those travelling in containers are up almost 50 percent yet again. Experts attribute this to the newly active Common Economic Space of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan. Belarusian Railways will be a vital link connecting Europe to Eurasia, and the coasts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
By Vladimir Bibikov