Public transport plays catch up in Sofia

By Doug Jack

My travels this summer took me to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, a destination I have not covered in any of my previous letters.

Sofia is a city of around 1.2 million people, situated towards the western end of a country of 7.4 million. Bulgaria became part of the Soviet Bloc in 1946 until it gained independence in 1991. The country and its neighbor Romania were the last two countries to join the European Union in January 2007.

My time was rather limited but I managed to take a number of photographs either through the windscreen or open side window of taxis. I think they will give BUSRide readers a good impression of transport from another part of the world.

This city has eclectic mix of older trams, trolleybuses and diesel buses. Under the Soviet system, the larger cities ran integrated networks of metro, tram, trolleybus and diesel bus systems. These integrated services often required one or two changes in mode of transport to cross a city. Production of vehicles was on an allocation and counter-trade basis, so that the largest manufacturer of city buses was Ikarus of Hungary.

Sofia has only one metro line divided in two sections that the city may connect later this year to make one cross-city line. The discovery of important archaeological remains along the chosen underground route has delayed the project.

The trams in Sofia are an unusual mixture of both narrow and standard gauge track that do not meet or share a common track as far as I could tell, and it would be a massive task to convert the remaining narrow gauge lines to standard gauge. The trams operate on around 100 miles of routes with tracks that appeared to be in poor condition. The trolleybus network covers nine routes over a total distance of more than 60 miles.

Most of the vehicles by Ikarus in Hungary delivered between 1985 and 1988 appear to be in quite good condition for their age. However, they have high floors and are not easily accessible to people with disabilities.

Small numbers of more recent trolleybuses are imported used vehicles from other systems in Western Europe, or prototype vehicles adapted from standard diesel-engine buses. The articulated trolleybuses run frequently on some of the main arterial routes, picking up the many passengers who live in large high-rise apartment blocks.

We passed a very modern coach station next to the main railway station. It had shops, ticket offices and fast-food outlets, and gave direct access to coaches running throughout Bulgaria and into neighboring countries. The few coaches were a mixture of new Turkish-built models and older used vehicles imported from Western Europe.

The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development has said it would consider a loan equivalent of up to $25 million to support Sofia Electrical Public Transport in a priority investment program to procure new trolleybuses and rehabilitate power sub-stations.

Most of the former manufacturers of trolleybuses in the Soviet Bloc have ceased trading, although Uritski now trades in Russia as Trolza, in much slimmer form. There are some newcomers, such as Solaris in Poland, Sor in the Czech Republic, and two builders from Belarus, MAZ and Belkommunmash. Van Hool of Belgium and Hess of Switzerland also build trolleybuses.

The proposed initial loan by EBRD will only pay for a small number of vehicles. Further heavy investment will be required to introduce modern vehicles with low floors and modern electrical systems which recover energy that was previously lost whenever vehicles braked or slowed down.

A separate city-owned company operates nearly 600 buses on 100 routes. These older vehicles include Mercedes-Benz O305 models acquired several years ago from Mainz, Germany. The O305, in both solo and articulated versions had horizontal engines and were in production in Germany from 1967 to 1987.

Wages in Bulgaria, particularly for manual workers, are still very low by Western European or North American standards, and impact operating costs. Large central workshops carry out extensive overhauls of vehicles that most fully developed countries would normally withdraw and scrap. These shops also have the capability to make many replacement parts.

While Bulgaria was part of the Soviet Bloc, Ikarus and Chavdar supplied most of the buses built in the Bulgarian town of Botevgrad. The latter company struggled on for a few years after Bulgaria gained its independence but finally closed in 1999. The last buses Chavdar supplied to Sofia in 1996 were 30 articulated units with MAN engines.

Turkish bus manufacturers have been the main beneficiaries of the collapse of Central and Eastern Europe. Bulgaria borders Turkey, and Sofia has bought buses from the Turkish factories of Mercedes-Benz and MAN. The earliest examples were high-floor articulated models, but more recently, low-floor from Mercedes-Benz, BMC and Guleryuz are showing up. BMC builds Cummins engines under license in Turkey, while Guleryuz normally sources from MAN.

Bulgaria has natural gas and seems to be readily available in gas stations, fueling many of the taxi cabs. On the other hand, I saw only a small number of gas-fueled buses, but they included some new low-floor models by the small Czech builder Tedom.

Private operators contract with the city of Sofia to operate a number of routes, though these operations are quite small.
Minibuses, known as marshrutki supplement the services by full-size buses, trams and trolleybuses along a network of cross-city routes, but do not use regular stops. Instead, passengers hail them from the curb like a taxi. Passengers get on and off by using a hinged door alongside the driver and pay a higher fare for the privilege of faster point-to-point journey times.

Driving standards in Sofia overall leave a lot to be desired, and public transport faces some tough challenges. The city must drastically reduce the average age of its trams, trolleybuses and buses.

The European Union is adopting strict standards on carbon emissions, and expects the bus industry to play its part. Cities such as Sofia with a high percentage of aging vehicles will have to start investing more heavily in modern low-emission fleets.

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.