A piggy-back ride up the hill
One of Germany’s oddest railways is a piggy-back funicular, part of a three-line network of rural railways. In the hot summer of 2003 I went for a ride, and wrote another article for Eagle, the journal of the Cambridge University Railway Club.
In Britain we tend to think of funicular railways in terms of the Edwardian cliff lifts gracing our seaside towns, but deep in the forests of Thüringen is something rather different. One of the strangest lines operated by Deutsche Bahn, the Oberweißbacher Bergbahn is a 1.4 km broad-gauge funicular which climbs 323m up a wooded hillside. Inland funiculars are not usual in the more vertiginous parts of the Continent, but what makes the Oberweißbacher line special its very unusual (though I dare not suggest unique!), piggy-back design. Seemingly little known outside Germany, the Bergbahn deserves wider fame, both for its unusual arrangement and the short electric railway at the summit.
I first came across the Bergbahn in 2003 while flicking through a copy of Eisenbahn Magazin, a German monthly publication for railway enthusiasts. There was short report about the reopening of the Bergbahn on 15th December 2002 following a major refurbishment, with a photo of the piggy-back car. Thinking it might be some kind of spoof, I looked up the line in Cook’s European Timetable and then on the internet – there is a comprehensive website about the Bergbahn in German and English – and soon decided it would be on my itinerary for a visit to Germany planned for July 2003.
Located in the Free State of Thüringen, one of the Länder in what was once East Germany, the Bergbahn is somewhat remote, and while it is not difficult to get there by train, some forward planning ensures that one can end up somewhere sensible afterwards.
Leaving the Nürnberg to Berlin ICE train at Saalfeld, there is time for a quick look across the tracks to a small loco depot, where one of the bays of the roundhouse appears to have the front end of a diesel loco built into a blanking wall! From Saalfeld a cross-country branch runs to Erfurt, and our train was formed of 621 024-5, a single car DMU built by De Dietrich and LHB (now part of Alstom) for use in Germany and France (where it is Class X73500). Another change is necessary 16 minutes later at Rottenbach, where we boarded 641 019-5, one of two 120 km/h De Dietrich/Alstom class 641 railcars which are dedicated to the 25 km Schwarzatal branch.
The branch, the funicular and the electric railway at the top of the hill together form the Oberweißbacher Berg- und Schwarzatalbahn, one of four self-contained regional networks created by DB AG on 1st January 2002. The infrastructure and operation are integrated, the rolling stock is dedicated to the route, and OBS has 28 staff providing a degree of local control and management. The 42 minute journey along the Schwarzatalbahn passes up the heavily wooded valley of the river Schwarza to the terminus at Katzhütte. Sections of the permanent way had been recently relaid, with disused goods yards which had once served now derelict factories losing their connection to the rail network. There are eight stations on the route, including Obstfelderschmeide, the lower station of the Bergbahn. Plandampf ays are held each year, when steam locomotives work service trains along the line, which opened in 1900.
Katzhütte is a small place, spread out along the valley by the river and road. The youth hostel was almost empty, with just a handful of Germans and the obligatory Japanese visitor, intently studying his guidebook (which no doubt listed every detail of the Bergbahn). Unusually, the hostel warden spoke no English, so the rusty remains of GCSE German were dusted off. Across the road from the hostel was a pub, serving the usual chunks of pig atop a mountain of cabbage. The occupants of the village’s second pub were intently playing cards, but we received a more vigorous welcome from the local midges.
The next morning we caught 641 020-3 down the branch for the 16 minute ride to Obstfelderschmeide, the lower end of the funicular. The Bergbahn was originally built to provide a rail link from the valley bottom to the villages on the plain above. Access via a twisting road up the valley sides had been difficult until the funicular provided a link to the outside world, opening for goods traffic on 15th January 1922 and to passengers on 15th March the following year. The 1 387.8 m long Bergbahn has the common funicular layout of two cars running on a single track line with a passing loop in the middle. More unusually the tracks split again at the bottom station, the left-hand route when seen from the valley bottom having a roof over it. On this track is a conventional, if wide, funicular vehicle which we rode up the hill. It has banked seating for 100 passengers, and an empty weight of 26 tonnes.
The most distinctive feature of the Bergbahn is the other car, which travels on the right hand track at Obstfelderschmeide and through the passing loop. This 25 tonne vehicle has a triangular wedged-shape, providing a level platform on top of which sits, piggyback style, a 9.2 tonne four wheel carriage which 72 passengers can travel in. This carriage was formerly used on a light railway between Schleiz and Saalburg, and it was adapted for dedicated use on the funicular in 1972. It can be rolled off the transporter vehicle, leaving the platform free to carry other stock up the funicular. A siding from the Katzhütte line leads to a small turntable, where single wagons or small carriages of up to 27 tonnes can be rotated 90 degrees and manoeuvred onto the piggyback
The Bergbahn operates every 30 minutes, more frequently than the two trains each way every two hours (it isn’t simply hourly) on the branch line, and, being in Germany, the funicular departures are timed to connect with the trains. In March 2004 the funicular was adapted to provide wheelchair accessibility. A conductor travels on board, and can give a talk on the history of the line, well rehearsed to fit the 18 minute duration of the trip. The descending vehicle is passed in the middle, with the inevitable waving between passengers. To avoid the need for moving points the vehicles have double flanged wheels on their outer wheels but no flanges on the inner wheels, the inner rails through the loop providing support but not guidance. The gradient varies between 24% and 25%, and the track curves to the left as it climbs. The top station at Lichtenhain is 323 m above Obstfelderschmeide, and houses the electrically-powered winding gear for the funicular. Inside the station is a small display of old photos.
Outside the funcular’s fine trainshed is the platform used by trains on a standard gauge line which runs for a further 2.5 km to Cursdorf. The only rail link from this line to the outside world is via the piggy-back wagon to the valley bottom. Stock can be rolled onto the piggy back vehicle via another turntable, this time situated on the standard gauge running line rather than a siding. The turntable and also gives access to a small workshop. The line to Cursdorf is electrified at 600 V DC, and the half-hourly service is worked by three electric railcars dating from 1923, assembled from parts used on Berlin S-Bahn trains. Six minutes after the funicular had arrived we set off on board 479 205-7, with the 24 seats in each of the two cars of the train to ourselves. The 10 minute ride to Cursdorf passes through a rural landscape of fields, trees and the ubiquitous wind turbines, with one intermediate station at Oberweißbach. There didn’t seem to be much to see at the terminus, and not having time to explore the country walks signposted with the usual Teutonic thoroughness, we simply caught the train back for a look at the top station, travelling in the other car, 479 203-2. At Lichtenhain a few passengers were waiting for the trip down in the piggyback car.
We caught 641 020-3 from Obstfelderschmeide back to Rottenbach. The DMU had a first class area with eight, empty, seats, the only difference from the 55 in standard class seemingly being a partition. The driver was responsible for checking tickets, leaving the cab at some stations to walk through the trains. Many of the passengers were children.
In 2003 the Bergbahn received around 200 000 visitors, making it the second most popular attraction in Thüringen.