A visit to the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen

Some (rather badly scanned) photographs I took while on holiday in Germany in July 2003, along with an article I wrote for Eagle, the journal of the Cambridge University Railway Club.

[Steam loco at water crane]
99 7238-1 takes on water at Drei Annen Hohne. 2003-07-18.

The famous Harz narrow gauge railway network is operated by Harzer Schmalspurbahnen GmbH. Owned by the various local authorities, it still provides scheduled steam services on the 131.24 km network, which became the first non-federally owned railway in the former East Germany on 1 February 1993. HSB declares its aim as to “preserve all three railways in the Harz region in their entirety as a tourist attraction, a monument to engineering, a facility for freight haulage and as a local transport facility”. HSB has 25 steam engines, six railcars, and 16 diesel locos.

We began our July 2003 visit to the Harz in Wernigerode. An attractive town, it looks rather like a German theme park might be built, with brightly-painted and half-timbered buildings. The Harz railways station is, as so often in Europe, located just outside the main station. Stepping off our DB train we could see smoke rising in the distance, but the DMU from Halberstadt had been 44 minutes late, so out priority was finding the Youth Hostel.

The hostel was a surprisingly respectable place, though a bus ride from the town centre, and not as well sign-posted as it could be! From the window of our room it was just possible to see passing steam trains through the trees. Dumping our bags we headed into town for dinner in the restaurant under the Rathaus – being a major tourist centre, there are plenty of dining options in the town. We wandered over to peer over the fence at the railway sheds, and bumped into a local who explained all about what Bismarck did in the dramatically-sited castle, but sadly our German wasn’t up to it.

The next morning we headed into town to photograph the 08:44 departure from Westerntor station cross a large level crossing outside the western gate to the town centre. We then walked to the main station to acquire tickets. The staff were well used to tourists, and with schoolboy-German and pointing at the map we were soon sold a suitable ticket. This was a €24 BrockenCard, valid for one return trip from any HSB station to Schierke and Brocken, and one other, non-Brocken, return trip within three days. A three day rover ticket costs €35, 5 days €40 and 7 days 50.00. Dogs under 20cm high go free, but bigger ones are half-fare.

We caught the 09:25 from Wernigerode to Brocken, hauled by 99 7238-1, and very busy with German holiday makers. The trains are formed of balcony carriages of a design common to the former-DDR’s narrow gauge lines. Riding on the balcony was popular, but Germans are averse to open doors. One chap held his nose to point out that the carriage might start to smell of steam if the door was left open, and leaving us to wonder why he was sat in the front carriage. It was clear that some of the Germans found their own insistance on keeping the doors close rather amusing, and they were slightly theatrical in closing doors after returning from trips to stand on the balcony!

[Loco in the mist]
The loco runs round its train at Brocken station, 1125 metres above sea level. 2003-07-18.

The train arrived at the 1125m high Brocken station at 11:07, disgorging its passengers into the misty and slightly cooler surroundings. There is the typically German collection of sausage sellers, a restaurant and a hotel at the top of the 1142m high hill. The former military listening post is now a visitor centre with information on the national park, local wildlife and history. We bought postcards, but didn’t pay the €4 go in. There is a ban on using the train toilets between Schierke and Brocken, and we soon began to wonder if this was anything to do with charging people €0.50 for the ones on the hilltop! We wandered over to the railway to photograph 99 7242-3 hauling the 11:52 arrival, before boarding for the 12:08 back down.

[Steam loco in trees]
2-10-2T locos 99 231 to 99 247 were built at Karl Marx Locomotive Factory in Babelsberg in the 1950s for use on the narrow-gauge Eisfeld – Schönbrunn, Gera-Pforten – Wuitz – Mumsdorf, Harzquer and Brocken lines. Carrying its former DR number, 99 7234 is heading up to Brocken, while the downhill train waits in the passing siding. Once the uphill train has passed, the downhill train reverses out of the siding back onto the main line, then heads forwards to Schierke. 2003-07-18.

Halfway to Schierke the downhill train runs into a siding, where it waits for the uphill train to pass. The downhill train then reverses out of the siding, before heading forwards again. Throughout the journey staff wandered up and down the train with baskets, selling small bottles containing some form of alcoholic beverage.

We got off at Schierke, to watch the trains pass and grab some currywurst and bottled black beer, and be impressed by the range of tacky witch-themed souvenirs in the station shop (the German witches who apparently meet on the Brocken seem to wear a lot less clothing than British ones!). We then took the 13:40, seven coaches and a van hauled by 99 7234-0, down to the junction at Drei Annen Hohne, where the station features a beer garden, and there is a tourist information centre. After 15:00 we had the now unusual sight of three scheduled steam trains waiting to depart in three different directions.

The loco from the Eisfelder Talmühle – Wernigerode train, which includes an open wagon fitted with seating for which a supplement is payable, is swapped with the loco from the Brocken – Nordhausen train. The Wernigerode – Brocken train keeps its loco.

At 15:33 we set off for Nordhausen behind 99 7236-5. At Elend there was a slight pause as the station cafe supplied mugs of drinks for the loco crew.

The countryside is heavily wooded, and many trees later we arrived at Eisfeld Talmühle, junction of the two routes. A diesel railcar connection arrived from Nordhausen and went off towards Steige. The station building seemed to be under reconstruction, and there was a collection of freight rolling stock in DR livery stood in a siding. We passed through Ilfeld, the northern limit of a more frequent service which provide about one railcar an hour to Nordhausen, but at irregular intervals.

Nordhausen – closed for rebuilding

[Railcar]
There is short link between the HSB lines and the tramway in Nordhausen, allowing railcars to serve Nordhausen Nord, the bus and tram stop.

187 016-1 is one of four diesel-hydraulic railcars built to reduce costs on Alexisbad – Nordhausen Nord services and to provide school and commuter services between Ilfeld and Nordhausen. Partly paid for by the states of Thüringen and Sachsen-Anhalt, the 50km/h railcars were built at DB’s Halberstadt works and delivered from March to August in 1999. The design was developed using experience gained with prototype vehicle 187 015 which had been built in Wittenberge in 1996. (Photo 2003-07-18).

The HSB terminus in Nordhausen, just to one side of the DB station, gives the distinct impression of having seen better days. The one modern feature among the decay is the provision of a short link between the HSB and the town’s tram network. Branching off the HSB just before the station, this allows the HSB railcars to access the bus and tram stops in front of both railways’ stations.

The tram network comprises two lines electrified at 600 V DC. The 3.22 km Line 1 runs from the hospital in the north to the station in the south, the 4.55 km Line 2 runs from Parkallee in the northwest to Nordhausen East, crossing Line 1 in the town centre. During our stay much of the city centre was being dug up for rebuilding, and instead of serving the station via a large loop around the block the trams were terminating in a construction site a few minutes walk away.

The tramway was obviously having serious money spent on it, with some of the stops being modernised to light rail standards. In 2002 the town ordered 3 dual-mode Siemens Combino trams with 180 kW diesel engines, and from May 1 2004 these will operate an hourly service on a new Route 10 from the hospital, through the town centre and then under diesel power over the HSB lines to Ilfeld. We noticed that the southern end of the HSB also had very modern platforms, perhaps in readiness for the integration with the tramway.

[Tram]
Three-section Siemens Combino tram number 105 tram negotiates the road and tramway rebuilding works in central Nordhausen. The tramway is operated by Stadtwerke Nordhausen. (Photo 2003-07-18).

The city has a fleet of 7 Siemens Combino trams, a mix of uni- and bi-directional models. No. 107 was carrying vinyls referring to the tramway in the Austrian town of Gmunden where it had recently been demonstrated. Only having doors on one side of most of the trams was awkward in the city centre, where rebuilding of the southbound track meant all trams were using the other line, making the doors inaccessible from the platform.

Tickets are bought from machines on board the tram, which seemed to be quite new as some locals were struggling with it. While we debated whether it was worth getting a four-journey ticket, a local thought we were confused and came to offer help. Then the tram stopped, luckily on a reserved track section, and the driver came back to join in!

The youth hostel is one stop from the northwestern terminus of Line 2, but within walking distance of the town centre; the tramway really is tiny. Outside the hostel were two sidings in a locked compound containing older trams, now displaced by the Combinos.

Like so many towns Nordhausen was devastated by air raids in WWII (V2 rockets were produced in a nearby labour camp), was perhaps unsympathetically rebuilt, and is only now being restored; it is quite odd to see a section of medieval city wall being built! The whole town gave the impression of being shut for rebuilding. We ate at a cheap bar round the back of the Rathaus, which was the only sign of life we could see. We weren’t unduly disappointed to be leaving Nordhausen the next morning, but I think it will be a reasonable place once they have finished building it, though with few attractions other than its transport network.

Down the pit

At 10:06 the following day we set off for Netzkater behind 99 7236-5. We had planned to change trains one stop further on at Eisfelder Talmühle, but on the way in we had spotted a mining museum with a collection of narrow gauge rolling stock, and a beer garden.

A tour of the mine was departing as we arrived at the museum, and after relieving us of €5 the ticket office simply gave us hard hats pointed towards the drift entrance. We dashed down after the tour group, for a 45 minute walk around the disused coal mine. The tour was in German, but if you have ever done a tour of a mine you can work out much of what was being said and fill in the gaps! Part of the tour is completely unlit, visitors having to feel their way forwards through the tunnels. There was a demonstration of a cable hauled incline inside the mine, then we returned tot he surface, where for €0.50 rides on a 60cm gauge man-rider train were available. A beer later we caught the 12:10 diesel railcar for Hasselfelde on the Selkatal line.

Limitations of GCSE German

All but one of the other passengers disembarked at Stiege, but we continued to Hasselfeld. The ‘genuine’ passenger left, and the driver retired to the station cafe. We wandered around the station yard, where a steam loco boiler is on display. A shed contains another loco, which we think is privately owned and non-operational. We then returned to Steige, where the passengers who had got off earlier got on again! There were now 13 passengers,and the other 11 seemed fairly genuine, rather than simply there for the ride. In contrast, all seven or so coaches of the trains on the Brocken line had been pretty full.

de-brocken1-small.jpg
An uphill train approaches the Brocken summit. 2003-07-18.

Numbers had thinned to four by Siberhütte. As we approached the station a stout gentleman in a bright pink shirt could be seen rushing towards the station, followed by a snaking line of 10 hikers. Unfortunately the train left the station before he made it to the platform. This left us with a problem, as I was off school during the “bang on the cab door and tell the train driver he had left the passengers behind” module of GCSE German. We pointed out to the other two passengers what had happened, and after some hesitation they went to establish communications with the driver. We stopped some distance beyond the station, and I hung out of the window to wave and shout at the hikers, who came trotting along the track behind us to catch up.

We got off at Alexisbad, the junction for the Harzgerode brach, and took the change to sample the local apple wine. A steam train arrived from Gernrode, and we caught it up the steeply graded branch. Many of the passengers seemed to be enthusiasts, and there were a few British people on board. A the terminus there was just time to glance into the castle courtyard, then it was time to head back down to Alexisbad, and change for a steam service to Gernrode.

The station area at Gernrode cannot be considered one of Germany’s greatest scenic delights. After ascertaining that the semi-derelict structure opposite the HSB terminus really was the DB station, and inferring from the presence of another, local-looking, passenger that there might really still be a train service, we had the best part of an hour’s wait for our two-car DMU. This took us to the very attractive town of Quedlingburg, which has an impressive gothic-style station, and a centrally-located – and this time well sign posted – half-timbered youth hostel where we were given a room in the attic.

Visiting

The Harz railways are well worth a visit. Wernigerode is geared up for tourists, and the Brocken line is very popular. The use of steam over the whole system can feel slightly “preserved”, but I felt the Selketal line had a slightly more genuine feel to it, with real passengers, and the railcars certainly provide a real service.

The one thing to beware of when planning a trip is that south of Drei Anne Hohne the trains are not very frequent, with four services per day over some stretches of line. The pattern of through trains is quite complex, and a trip over the whole network does require some planning.

HSB’s official website at gives full timetables, details and histories of the lines, and enthusiast oriented information on the rolling stock in both German and English.