A Train With “Teeth”
By Awake! correspondent in Greece
IMAGINE yourself in the midst of a wild and narrow ravine full of lush trees, with huge rocks overhanging dangerously and a twisting river flowing fiercely at its bottom. Just as you begin to feel that you are all alone, suddenly from a distance you hear a grinding and rattling sound. The last thing you would ever anticipate seeing in this solitary place, which seems so inaccessible and untouched by man, would be a piece of modern transportation. But the sound is unmistakable—a train is coming!
As the sound comes nearer, you discern a small train among the tall trees, with only two cars and a diesel engine in the middle, slowly laboring its way up the steep mountain ascent. Welcome to the Dhiakoptón-Kalávrita Rack Railway, one of the most interesting and spectacular railways in Europe, situated in the Peloponnisos region of Greece. In Greek this railway is referred to as odontotós, which literally means “toothed,” a very fitting name, as you will find out.
The town of Kalávrita, situated in northern Peloponnisos, is the economic and administrative center of the surrounding area. It is also a place of religious and historical interest because of some famous monasteries located nearby. Since it nestles in a mountain valley, the town is also famous for its natural beauty, the forests surrounding it, its many springs, and its healthy climate.
At the peak of its history, during the mid-19th century, the town had a population of 6,000. But it was isolated from the coastal towns and villages by rugged mountainous terrain. There were no paved roads or any other means of communication, and transportation to and from the town required many grueling hours of travel by horse- or donkey-drawn carts. The most convenient way to reach the coast was by way of a deep canyon with the Vouraikós River at its bottom, this river ending at the village of Dhiakoptón.
Before the turn of the century, it was decided that this should be the route of a useful and enchanting railway, a vital lifeline to the coastal towns. Engineering studies revealed, however, that the route over which the railway had to pass included very steep slopes. What was needed in this case was a rack railway.
What is a rack, or cog, railway? It is one that is designed for terrain with very steep grades; between the normal rails, it has a toothed rail—a steel rack rail—into which a circular gear on the engine can be engaged. This prevents the train from slipping backward when it is ascending or forward when it is descending.
In the case of the Dhiakoptón-Kalávrita Rack Railway, the maximum inclination is 1 in 7 (an incline of 1 foot [one meter] vertical for 7 feet [seven meters] horizontal), and this exists at three different places on the route. Thus, for these three sections of the railway, the train engineer has to stop the train, engage the gear on the rack, and continue at a controlled low speed.
Because of the difficult terrain that the railway had to cross, its construction represented a major engineering feat. The job was assigned to an Italian construction firm, which started work in 1891. To make things easier for the construction, a narrow-gauge line (30 inches [75 cm]) was selected.
Five years later, in 1896, tons of rock had been removed. Nine tunnels had been bored through the mountain rock, and six bridges had been built. In the beginning all the bridges were of the masonry-arch type, but years later some were replaced with steel bridges. A brand-new railway, climbing for 14 miles [23 km] to an elevation of 2,400 feet [720 m] was ready to be used. Now that you know its background, would you like to board the train and enjoy its fascinating course?
A Breathtaking Route
Let us take the morning train, No. 1328, from coastal Dhiakoptón. The ride starts smoothly and slowly as we pass through the village. Although we are filled with eager anticipation, the people of the village, who have evidently used this train numerous times, do not even bother to turn their heads to glance at it. But with undiminished excitement we continue.
After a few minutes, we see the entrance to a formidable ravine. It is a breathtaking sight. The surging river is at our left, and huge rocks are hanging threateningly over us, pine trees precariously rooted on them. The winding river has carved its way gracefully through the rocks.
The vegetation is dense and lush. Our train seems to sneak through forests of big plane trees and beech trees, whose branches almost touch our railroad car. Although the railway has operated for almost a century now, certain parts of this gorge are virtually unapproachable, surrendering their beauty only to the eye of the traveler.
We reach the first train stop, called Niámata, where a few local farmers get off to head for their fields on foot. As we continue, the terrain gets even steeper. Suddenly the train stops. Nothing is wrong, of course, but the engineer now has to use the middle rack rail to continue with caution. We feel the engine gear engage the rack, which gives the railroad car a more steady motion. Despite the reassurance of the experienced passenger next to us that everything is fine, we feel a little bit anxious as we notice the very steep ascent.
Along the walls of the more open parts of the ravine, we see big caves that are used by the local people as pens for sheep. On the left side, there are smaller caves with very impressive stalactites and stalagmites. Big cascades fall from all sides, and their sound, mingled with its echo, is reinforced by the shape of the gorge. Here, at the left, are landslides that have created some less permanent cascades that will eventually be washed away by the surging river. We pass by some hardy souls who decided to walk instead of boarding the train.
The canyon and the river get deeper as we pass over a high bridge. At one point, the gorge is very narrow—barely seven feet [2 m] wide—and the train has to pass through a tunnel parallel to the steep slope.
After we pass more tunnels and bridges, the gorge gradually opens and finally becomes a narrow valley, and before long we reach the second stop, the village of Káto Zakhloroú. The sign posted at the small station shows an altitude of 1,970 feet [601 m]. The few houses in this village are built on both sides of the valley, hidden between huge plane trees and walnut trees. You can feel the heavy humidity in the air, and if you ask the residents of the village, they will readily agree that in this dark valley, they have not enjoyed a lot of sunshine in their lives. Because of the shape of the valley and the thickness of the trees, the sun is visible only a few hours each day—and even less during the winter.
Continuing on after Káto Zakhloroú, the train snakes along a more normal route, escorted by the now flat riverbed of the Vouraikós, passing through willow trees and eucalyptus trees. After a spectacular ride of 65 minutes, we can see the buildings of Kalávrita through the morning mist. Although this town only has about 3,000 residents, it attracts many tourists every season of the year. Some come to enjoy the nearby ski resort, while others come to savor its good climate and the delicious local cooking.
‘Much Safer Than in Your Own Home’
As we get off the train, we chat with Ioanní, the train engineer who brought us up here so smoothly and safely. “I always enjoy this ride,” he says with reserved contentment. Raising his eyes, as if recalling something, he adds: “But things get tough during wintertime. You see, the train is not always full, and you feel very lonely in the middle of this terrible ravine. Then you have the landslides, the snow, the cold, and the relentless fog. But I would not trade this route for any ‘normal’ one.”
When we ask about the safety of this railway, Ioanní is adamant: “You are much safer on this train than in your own home!” As a matter of fact, only one minor mishap, with no severe injuries, has occurred during the almost 100-year history of this railway.
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, this unique train was the means used to bring “the good news” of Jehovah’s Kingdom to the inhabitants of the remote town of Kalávrita and the hard-to-reach surrounding villages. (Mark 13:10) Today, as a result, there is a small but zealous congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kalávrita.
So if you should visit Greece, why not include on your sightseeing itinerary the Dhiakoptón-Kalávrita Odontotós, the train with “teeth”? Undoubtedly, you would enjoy a rewarding experience—one to be remembered for a long time!
[Box on page 21]
This is the name the locals have given to one of the biggest caves situated along the railway route. Why? Well, the shapes of stalactites and stalagmites in this cave offer a striking resemblance to a courtroom. In the background you can see the “judges” seated at the bench—heavy figures made of stocky stalagmites. At both sides, more stalagmites, “witnesses” and “attorneys,” watch the proceedings. Finally, at the mouth of the cave, one can observe the lifeless “defendants,” convicted and executed, hanging from the ceiling of the cave as two long stalactites.
[Maps on page 22]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
The route of the train with “teeth”
Dhiakoptón → Káto Zakhloroú → Kalávrita
[Pictures on page 23]
Top inset: The Mega Spileon train station
Below: The train with “teeth,” climbing a narrow ridge