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A Guide to Narrow Gauge Steam in East Germany

One of our most popular destinations among rail enthusiasts (often joined by partners and friends) is Germany - rail tours that take in some wonderful narrow gauge steam railways, particularly in the former East. Many of the railways we visit continue to operate daily services to the local community and attract many train tourists, keen to take advantage of lots of steam travel, available on a regular basis! Ffestiniog Travel tour leader John Robson once again brings his experience and expertise in this guide that focuses particular attention on the railways that Ffestiniog Travel includes in its Narrow Gauge in Eastern Germany and Dresden Steam Festival escorted tours.

Abend - © Dr Christof Schröfl
Alexisbad - © John Robson
Brocken Steam Train
Oberweisenthal
Eisfelde Talmuhle - © John Robson
Kirnitzschtal tramway
Molli narrow gauge train - © shutterstock
The Molli at Bad Doberan - © Bob Cable
Old Town, Dresden - © Brian Kinney
Lobnitzgrundbahn - © Stephen Painter
Rügensche BäderBahn
Wesseritztalbahn
Zittau - © Alan Heywood

Both The Eastern Germany and Dresden tours feature annually in Ffestiniog Travel’s tour programme so I thought it would be helpful to offer some useful thoughts on the various railways these tours visit. The Eastern Germany tour itinerary includes visits to railways 1,2,3,4,8,9,10 described below.

The Dresden Steam Festival tour itinerary includes visits to railways 1,2,5,6 described below. (plus the Dresden Altstadt depot during the Steam Festival). There is probably enough free time to visit Dresden Verkehrsmuseum on this tour also (see 7).

Both tours have quite full itineraries, but you can vary your own participation if you wish, as there are many competing attractions. Unlike many tour companies, Ffestiniog Travel is quite happy if you want to do something different from the main group, and tour leaders will always be happy to help when they can. Often Inter-City brand hotels are used which include individual public transport cards for the local area (which can be quite extensive).

East Germany still has a considerable number of narrow gauge lines which survive from the days of the GDR. Since unification these have all been privatised, so are no longer operated by DB. Most receive support from local authorities, and operate as real railways. They carry local traffic, including commuters and transport for schools as well as tourist traffic, and are often closely integrated into local transport networks. Operation by steam locomotives dominates, arguably the best steam operations in Europe, if not the world. Rolling stock is typically four wheeled coaches with end balconies. You can ride on the balconies if you wish (taking care to avoid the fall plates between vehicles), and many trains include an open wagon in their formation. A casual glance leads some to think the locomotives are all much the same, but a closer look reveals that this is not the case. The locomotives are all sturdy black tanks with bright red wheels, but there are a range of different wheel arrangements and track gauges. The most common gauge is 750mm where Class 99.173, and the closely related class 99.177 2-10-2T dominate but there are plenty of other types. As in the UK visiting engines are regularly arranged on the 750mm lines.

The individual lines do have very different characters, and scenery is very different from line to line.

Ticketing

If you are organising your own tickets, you will find that day-rovers (”tagescarte”) are available on all lines except Harz, and cost little more than a return. For longer visits weekly (“wochencarte”) or monthly (”monatscarte”) seasons tickets are usually available. As these are aimed at commuters, they represent extremely good value, even if not used for the full period. In the Dresden area, through ticketing, including narrow gauge railways, is only available for tickets valid for a week or more. Day return tickets look as if they are available on the ticket machines at Dresden Hbf , but these are only valid on DB train and local bus or tram services (not on private narrow gauge). On the Harz a three day rover is usually the only available rover ticket on this line.

1. Weisseritztalbahn. (Freital Hainsberg - Dippoldiswalde)

Locomotives and rolling stock

The regular locomotives are class 99.173 or 99.177. Most days there is only one locomotive in steam, but on peak weekends there are two. There is a notably large selection of frieght stock stored at Freital.

Journey

The line follows steep valleys and ravines. The upper section suffered from flood damage and was closed for some years as much of the formation had to be completely rebuilt. During this period of closure the line only operated to the half way point, but full services have now been restored.

2. Loessnitzgrundbahn. (Radebeul Ost - Radeburg)

Locomotives and rolling stock

Another railway which uses Class 99.173/177 on its basic service trains. The supporting society runs its own trains occasionally, which are hauled by 0-4-4-0T Meyer articulated locomotives. A number of locomotives are stored in the yard at Radebeul, as are a large assortment of freight vehicles. If you walk down the yard to see these, take care to stay away from the standard gauge main line.

Journey

After leaving urban Radebeul, the line continues through woodland and open country. Moritzburg Royal Hunting Lodge can just be seen around the halfway point. At Radeburg, the locomotive is watered outside the shed and runs round. The shed is locked, but if you walk round and look through the rather dirty window, the Meyers can be glimpsed inside. If you have time it is worth breaking the journey at Moritzburg and visiting the impressive hunting lodge. It is an attractive moated building consisting of four adjoining towers. Tickets are nominally not valid for break of journey, but I've found no problems after a break at Moritzburg.
(Note that in the Dresden area there are locations named Radeberg, Radeborg, and Radeburg, all quite distant from each other. Take care if you are planning your own itinerary!)

3. Zittau-Kurort Oybin and Kurort Jonsdorf

Locomotives and rolling stock

Class 99.173 (and one 99.177) are the regular locomotives.

Journey

Varied scenery in a rather hilly region near to the Czech border. The line is notable for having two termini in Kurort. Every train has a connection from the junction so that both Kurort stations are served. Departures from the junction (both steam hauled) are synchronised and can easily be photographed. If the drivers notice you taking photographs, they usually add some black smoke! All tickets are tagescartes, so allow travel on both branches, as well as repeated journeys.

4. Fichtelbergbahn (Cranzahl - Kurort Oberwiesenthal)

Locomotives and rolling stock

Like most of the 750mm lines the regular motive power is 99.713 and 99.177. However the workshop at Oberwiesenthal now overhauls most of the 750mm locomotives for many of the Saxon lines. Other types may be seen awaiting, or fresh from, overhaul.

Journey

Pleasant hilly country near to the Czech border.

5. Sachsische Dampfschiffahrt “White fleet” (Dresden - Bad Schandau)

Motive power

Not a railway, but most of the fleet are steam powered paddle steamers. Steam ships are always rostered for the longer journeys.

Journey

This is one of the most scenic parts of the River Elbe. Soon after leaving Dresden the Blue Wonder, an early cantilever bridge is passed, then a little further along two funicular railways ascend the cliff on the East side of the River. The first is a conventional funicular design, but the second is the world's only overhead suspension funicular! The ship calls at Pillnitz Palace, which is well worth visiting if you have time. (There are red squirrels in the grounds). Further on, on the west side, is the massive Konigstein fortress. Later the oddly shaped cliffs of the sandstone mountains are passed on the east side. The area known as the Bastei can be clearly seen, with the Bastei bridge connecting a massive ravine between the rocks.

Like many of the major European rivers, there is a main line railway from Berlin to Dresden following the river bank which continues to Prague. Traffic is very heavy, with a large amount of freight as well as both local and intercity passenger trains. Most trains are hauled by modern electric locomotives from all the well known builders. DB locos are in red livery, and Czech locos are blue. Most of the freight is operated by private companies, and it often seems as if no two trains are the same colour.Many of the older electric locomotives which used to operate this line have also been purchased by private operators. The traditional Skoda locomotives (DB class 180/Czech class 371 and 372) which have worked this route since 1988 are still seen working private operator freight.

The ship serves simple, but well prepared food at moderate prices, which makes a very pleasant lunch on deck if it is a sunny day.

If you finish your journey at Bad Schandau, and intend to catch the train back to Dresden you should note that the railway station is on the other side of the River to the town. There is a modern road bridge to the north of the town, but it is a long hike from town to station. The ferry, which operates every 30 minutes is a more practical option.

6. Kirnitztalbahn (Bad Schandau - Lichthainer Wasserfall)

Locomotives and rolling stock

This is a tramway rather than a railway. There are some historic vehicles which are operated on special occasions three or four times a year, but the regular trams are over 60 years old. All tickets, which are very moderately priced, are tagescartes. The vintage tram days are usually feast days when the tramway is extremely busy. The vintage vehicles shadow the normal service and there is a supplementary charge of one euro per journey. It is well worth paying. Not only do you travel in a beautifully preserved vehicle, but it will be less crowded than the service trams. On a normal day there is plenty of room in the regular vehicles.

Journey

Mainly rolling countryside with some forestation. At Lichthainer the waterfall is behind the pub, and there is an entry charge. The waterfall is turned on shortly after the train arrives! More interesting is a walk into the mountains. The station is at the bottom of sandstone cliffs, and you don't have to explore far to find remarkable rock structures, and excellent views over the Elbe valley. There are plenty of information boards suggesting routes. If you have time, it is well worth exploring.

7. Dresden Verkehrsmuseum

Covering all forms of transport, but including an extensive railway collection, this is well worth a visit. Many exhibit captions are in English. The museum is located in the main town square, quite close to the Frauenkirche. It is in the Johanneum building which was the former Royal Stables. It is easy to miss, as it looks more like a palace than a transport museum.

There are other transport related museums in Dresden, but they have very restricted openings. The Strassenbahnmuseum (tram museum) is typically open for only five days in the year. The Eisenbahnmuseum located in Dresden Altstadt depot is similarly open on only a few days a year, and is best visited on a tour to the annual Dresdner Dampfloktreffen. This is usually held annually in April, but in 2021 this has been postponed to October. (The Ffestiniog Travel departure has been rearranged for the October date - see details on the Ffestiniog Travel website. The itinerary remains as shown in the brochure for April.)

8. Mecklenbugische Baderbahn Molli (Bad Doberan - Ostseebad Kuehlungsborn)

Locomotives and rolling stock

This line is unique in Germany in having a 900mm gauge. Locomotives are 2-8-2T of class 99.232, unique to this line. There are four locomotives in this class, three of which were built in 1932. The line found itself short of motive power and had a fourth example built at Meiningen in 2009. This locomotive is identical to the earlier three, but if you look closely, you can see that, 77 years on, welding has become much neater!
An older Class 99.233 0-8-0T is displayed at Kuehlungsborn.

Journey

The Molli is noted particularly for its street running in Bad Doberan, where the line follows the main shopping street with its pavement cafes. The journey is over open countryside, with often extensive views over the flat land towards the coast. Kuehlungsborn is an attractive seaside town, where a stroll along the sea is very pleasant although it can be quite windy.

9. Ruegensche Baderbahn “Rasender Roland” (Lauterbach - Putbus - Goehren

Locomotives and rolling stock

The regular locomotives are three class 99.177’s and more unusually an industrial 0-8-0T locomotive now numbered 99.4011. This locomotive was built in 1932 and was designed for heavy shunting and freight. It does however perform well on the passenger turns on this line. Being smaller than the Ckas 99.177 locos, it has to work hard, and consequently is much noisier than the larger engines. It accelerates well, and appears to be quite at home on tourist trains. Whilst it is turned out in DR livery, this is not historically accurate, and the number is fake. It does, however, very much look the part! There are a good variety of locomotives based here which are used at special events. Access to the shed and yard at Putbus is allowed, and many locomotives can be photographed. These include 0-8-0WT numbers 99.4632 and 99.4633 which were built for the line.
For the short journey on the mixed gauge section from Putbus to Lauterbach a narrow gauge diesel is attached to the rear, as there is no run round loop at Lauterbach.

The yard at Putbus has some mixed gauge track and standard gauge steam locos are occasionally stabled there.

Journey

This is varied open and wooded rolling terrain. The area (especially towards Goehren) is popular for walking and there are hikers leaving and joining the train at the many stops. Goehren is a popular and attractive seaside resort. The station is next to the beach on the Baltic coast, very close to the pier. The town is situated on a steep hill, with a footpath providing a more attractive and safer route than the narrow and often busy road. Binz is also an attractive resort, but the walk from sea to station is rather longer. Binz DB station is about one kilometre from the narrow gauge station, being nearer the sea.

The line itself has a very regular service using three train sets. Two sets work the whole line, whilst the third set shuttles between Goehren and Binz. Services run from around 0700 to 2100. With three locomotives in use and an intensive service it is well worthwhile having a tagescarte. The line is quite vibrant and well used, but with an intensive service and long trains there is usually plenty of room. There are very cheap wochencartes and a lot of holidaymakers seem to park their cars and use the trains for the duration of their holiday.

(If starting from Putbus, as most do, a tagescarte is cheaper than buying returns to each end of the line).

In the same area there is a privately owned museum at Prora station which houses over fifty mainly standard gauge locomotives.

10. Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (Wernigerode - Brocken, Wernigerode - Nordhausen, and Eisfelder Talmuehle - Quedlinburg with branches to Hasselfelde and Harzgerode)

Locomotives and rolling stock

The main locomotive type is the impressive Class 99.22 “Brockenlok” 2-10-2T. The track here is metre gauge, and these large heavy locomotives take full advantage of this. Locomotive 99.7222 was one of three built in 1932 and is usually in immaculate condition, although it is used turn and turn about with the subsequent locomotives. The other locomotives of class 99.22 were built in between 1954 to 1956 specially for the Harz network. 99.7222 has some minor differences from the rest of the class, but these have been much reduced in subsequent heavy overhauls. There is also prairie tank 99.6001. This was built by Krupp in 1939 as a prototype for larger scale production, but no others were ever built. It is, however, a regular working locomotive as it is well suited to the lighter trains on the tight curves of the Selketalbahn. It is based at Gernrode, and is normally found working this depot's steam diagram. Mallet articulated 0-4-4-0T locomotives 99.5901 and 99.5906 now work from Wernigerode, and are kept for vintage train workings. They are often stabled in the yard outside Wernigerode depot.

Some vintage coaches survive painted in dark green DR livery. These are only used on vintage trains which need special tickets. Note that the advertised vintage trains (which run on many weekends) always have vintage coaches, but use of a Mallet locomotive is not guaranteed. Tickets are only marginally more expensive than the usual Brocken fare, but the three day rover tickets are not valid on these workings.

Many trains in the Harzquebahn and the Selketalbahn are worked by diesel railcars, and there are some local journeys from Nordhausen to Ilfeld worked by electro-diesel trams. In recent years, because of locomotive and steam crew shortages, a few locomotive hauled trains have been diagrammed for Class 199 diesels. These are former DR standard gauge diesels rebogied for meter gauge. The timetable clearly shows what type of motive power works each train.

Although there is no longer any freight traffic, a considerable number of freight vehicles survive, which include transporter wagons for standard gauge stock. Whilst much stock is in poor condition, the supporting enthusiast group carries out immaculate restorations on selected vehicles. Often these are included in the formation of their occasional charter trains to make up a mixed train. The first vehicle restored by them was a box van, which is loaded with beer and sausages, and provides sustenance at stops on their often long and complicated charter excursions.

Journey

This is a large network extending to 140 route kilometres in total. There are three lines, the Brockenbahn, the Harzquebahn, and the Selketalbahn. The Brockenbahn is steeply graded, through largely forested areas until it climbs beyond the tree line when the mountain views open up. The gradient is an almost continuous 1 in 30 throughout the whole journey. The Harzquebahn (to Nordhausen) traverses largely rolling countryside, but still has many difficult gradients, again up to 1 in 30 in places. The Selketalbahn (from Eisfelder Talmuehle to Gernrode and Quedlinburg) follows the River Selke for much of its length. Gradients are more modest when it follows the River, but it still has the steepest gradients on the whole Harz system. This line climbs for six kilometres at 1 in 27 from Eisfelder Talmuehle to Birkenmoor. The steepest section is a difficult curving gradient of 1 in 25 for three km from Madgesprung to Steinhaus Ramberg as the line climbs away from the Selke valley. Damp track condition and autumn leaf fall can make this especially difficult. Of the three lines the Brockenbahn is undoubtedly the most dramatic, but its trains can be excessively crowded. The Selketalbahn is my favourite as it is the most varied. Also the trains are often virtually empty.

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