Ffestiniog Travel tour leader John Robson has penned another blog to share his experience and expertise of navigating the comprehensive Harz Railway network that weaves its way through Germany’s beautiful Harz Mountains. Ffestiniog Travel have been running escorted and arranging tailored rail holidays to the Harzer-Schmalspurbahnen (HSB) for over 30 years and the popularity of this destination shows no sign of waning. It appeals both to the rail enthusiast and partners in equal measure due to the abundance of steam-hauled locos and the scenic charms of the region. In this blog John offers some insights into how you can make the best of your time on this wonderful and extensive railway playground.
A holiday in the Harz Mountains works both as a fairly short holiday on its own, or as part of a longer holiday ---although in that case you will still want to spend quite a few days in Wernigerode. Both work well as a group or a personal tailored tour.
Day 1 - this tour usually begins with a Eurostar journey to Brussels with a relaxed change on to a Thalys or ICE to either Aachen or Cologne. The hotels for each of these stop overs are conveniently situated near the station with the one in Cologne adjacent to Platform 1! The rooms overlook the magnificent cathedral square, but from the corridors movements in the whole of the station can be observed. The sound insulation is remarkable as you don't hear the trains or station announcements in the hotel rooms. The cathedral, River Rhine, and the railway footbridge are just yards away and most travellers enjoy exploring the vicinity. The path to the river is over the roof of the Cologne concert hall and security staff often direct pedestrians away from the area over the roof of the auditorium, as the footsteps can be heard by concertgoers! The magnificent Gothic cathedral is well worth a visit, although I've been many times, it always feels more massive than I remember. A stroll along the Rhine Promenade is always pleasant, and there are plenty of pubs/cafes to have a light meal - a vibrant part of the city with a very friendly feel that attracts all ages.
Day 2 – onwards to Wernigerode, usually travelling via Wuppertal and Hannover. Looking out of the left hand side of the ICE the Wuppertal Schwebebahn can be seen. For much of its route it is suspended above the river. It was threatened with closure in the 1970’s, but the powers that be realised that it was an essential part of the transport network in Wuppertal – its future is now secure and it was recently re-equipped with modern hanging units built by Swiss company Stadler. At Hannover there is a relaxed change of trains and the station has many food outlets and a well-stocked bookshop to enjoy. The train to Wernigerode used to be a bit problematic as Deutsche Bahn would often only provide two coaches for what should have been a four-carriage train. Since the service was privatised a four-car train is always provided, and the modern units are very pleasant to travel in. On arriving at Wernigerode we have an interesting transfer (I'll leave that as a surprise) to the hotel. We usually stay at the Weisser Hirsch which is a really excellent hotel - superbly located in the picturesque town square, opposite the medieval town hall. If this is not available, we stay at the Gothithes Haus which is nearby and also of exceptionally high standard. I prefer the Weisser Hirsch, but probably only because I've stayed there so often and know the staff quite well. Both hotels give really good service. (The Weisser Hirsch does the best ice-cream in town though). There are plenty of places to eat -the hotel food is good, the Kartoffel (potato) Haus is popular, and the Rathauskeller is also very good. A restaurant near the station which will deliver your drinks by LGB model train providing you sit by the track which runs alongside the window. (They even use a model of Harz locomotive 99 6001).
The route to the main station from the hotel is a bit of a stroll, but all flat, and you pass the Harzer-Schmalspurbahnen (HSB) shed on the way. The Wernigerode Westentor station is rather closer, and all Harz Railway trains stop here. Most passengers alight at this station at the end of their rail journeys to return to the hotel, but most prefer to walk to the main station to see locos being prepared before boarding the train.
Days 3 to 5 – A three-day Harz Rover card is included on this tour, so travellers can plan their own daily itinerary. Even as people go their different ways, this is still a very sociable tour as you keep bumping into each other at various places on the network and often exchange tips. A lot of passengers meet in the hotel lounge in the evening to share ideas and plan subsequent days.
Rather than recount a typical set of days on the Harz Railway tour I will run through what you might want to consider when planning your itinerary.
The Harz is a very large system with a route mileage totalling 140.4 km (over 100 miles). There are three main routes, the Brocken, the Harzquerbahn (to Nordhausen) and the Selketalbahn (to Quedlinburg). In addition, there are branches to Hasselfelde and Harzgerode, as well as a famous balloon loop at Stiege. The HSB takes pride in being able to claim that the whole network is covered by steam at least once a day. That doesn't mean it is easy to cover with steam, for example the Harzgerode branch is only steam hauled on a very early morning departure from Gernrode, which is impossible to get on. Also the Stiege loop is only covered on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and then only if a steam locomotive is available (which in the last two years has often not been the case).
Unlike most railway visits where a rover ticket is bought and typically planning is done on the hoof, it is better to pre-plan carefully on the Harz network.
For a journey up the Brocken, it is a good idea to watch the weather. The summit of the Brocken can be seen from Wernigerode, and it is best to go on a clear day. The Brocken is also extremely popular, and trains can get crowded, in contrast, the rest of the network is almost moribund, with few passengers other than schoolchildren! A good alternative to reach the Brocken is to enjoy a relaxed start to the day and catch a train from Wernigerode at lunchtime as far as Eisfelder Talmuhle before heading back to Drei Anne Hohne. On some days (shown in the timetable) this route includes an open wagon which I recommend travelling in. Nominally there is a supplement, but only €1, and in my experience is rarely collected by the conductor anyway! There is plenty of time to take photos at both Eisfelder Talmuhle and Drei Anne Hohne before changing on to the Brocken train, which will be less crowded than those earlier in the day, making for a more pleasant ride to the summit, before returning directly to Wernigerode.
As part of your planning process, you need to consider whether travelling by steam is more of a priority than trying to cover the whole network and whether you are prepared for some long travel days! The first train to Nordhausen (changing twice en route) leaves around 0700, and the return train gets back to Wernigerode around 2000, so there are plenty of opportunities for long days! (Travel is by single coach diesels, but you will have plenty of room. (You may well be the only passenger unless others from the group join you!)
Until recently all trains to the Brocken were steam hauled, a few are now hauled by the diesel locomotives known as “red camels”. The timetable shows which trains are steam hauled across the whole system. Steam haulage to Brocken is always by the large “Brockenlok” 2-10-2T's. Other active steam locomotives include two Mallet 0-4-4-0 articulated locos (99 5901 and 99 5906), and a Prairie Tank 99 6001. The Mallets are now both based at Wernigerode, but are only used on special trains (many are advertised, but note that special tickets are needed). Even the advertised vintage trains are not reliably hauled by the Mallets. The 99 7222 is rather special and much older than the other 2-10-2Ts for which it effectively became the prototype. As well as having some minor differences from the later locomotives, it is a bit of a pet engine at Wernigerode depot and is kept in very clean condition, taking turns with the other locomotives primarily on the Brocken route.
To ride non-standard steam routes, the most likely chance is the one from Gernrode depot where 99 6001 is based. As the Selketalbahn has tight curves and lighter trains than on the Brocken, Gernrode depot prefers to use smaller locomotives. The daily Gernrode diagram (an engine’s daily workings) is usually rostered for 99 6001 (obviously this isn't guaranteed). This includes the 1030 departure from Quedlinburg, and the rest of the diagram is easily identified from the timetable. The other Gernrode steam diagram was for a long time based on steam working on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only (diesel unit on other days). Traditionally this was three coaches hauled regularly by 99 5906 which was a Gernrode allocated locomotive. Now with a shortage of steam locomotives this diagram (which starts with the 0830 from Quedlinburg) is often diesel every day of the week. As this was the only service to traverse the Stiege balloon loop (both outward and return), there is now no trip over the loop as with a diesel unit at either end of the train, the driver simply changes ends at Stiege!. The daily steam diagram has its train continuing down to branch from Stiege to Hasselfelde and then back in the outward direction, running round at Hasselfelde, and the return working runs round at Stiege, thus preserving the orientation of locomotive and train for the next day. There is no chance that this might use the Stiege loop.
It is easy to start the day at Quedlinburg by catching a main line train, changing at Halberstadt (at small additional fare) or catching the bus, which is only a little slower, and is free with a Harz area bus pass provided by the hotel. The buses are reliable, and probably keep better time than the trains. Google Maps is a good source for bus times. Buses to Quedlinburg start very early and run regularly until very late. The main bus station in Wernigerode is next to the main railway station. (Only a few local buses use the smaller bus station nearer the hotel, and none of these go towards the main rail/bus stations.) The Quedlinburg bus terminates outside Quedlinburg station, having passed around the town.
Getting from Wernigerode to Nordhausen has fewer options, maybe the best way is the early departure from Wernigerode which usually involves changes at Eisfelder Talmuhle, and sometimes at Ilfeld, where onward services are often operated by multi-system Nordhausen trams. If you break your journey at Nordhausen there will be a long wait until the next return service. It is a pleasant enough place (notwithstanding its tragic war history) with attractive river walks and has a circular tram network. The trams which go on to Ilfeld on the Harz Railway are multi-system and have doors on both sides. The trams for the local service in the town only have doors on one side! Do check carefully where your return journey starts from. If it is a tram, it will depart the tram stop outside the station. If it is a train (whether steam hauled or diesel unit) it will depart from inside the station. Whilst these are adjacent it would be very easy to be in the wrong place and miss it. Some workings are trams on selected days and trains on others. This is clear in the timetable, but you need to read it with care.
If you intend to return immediately it's advisable on many workings to cut your journey short of the terminus. As the trams stop outside the Harz station building, if there are only a few minutes before the next northbound departure it is easy to miss the return. You might have to be organised and rush into the main station building. If you miss it, you could have a four hour wait for the next departure!
I hope this doesn't sound too complex. It isn't really. It's more a case that you have a wide variety of possible options on this extensive system, and you need to think what suits you best. Ffestiniog Travel’s Harz tours usually have plenty of repeat passengers, so there will be lots of practical advice available from your travelling companions. Travelling as a small group can also be reassuring.
You will also want to see the local sights. The Brocken is an obvious one and easy. The Russian listening station at the peak is still essentially complete and adds interest to the 360-degree views. Wernigerode has an impressive castle, high above the town. The nearby extensive aircraft museum (a short walk beyond Westentor station) is probably the biggest in Germany and well worth a visit as it houses many examples of early flight, including a considerable number of British jet fighters, and aircraft enthusiasts will be enthralled by a rare high-performance jet from India. (The hotel hands out booklets which include a free bus pass for the Harz area and discount vouchers for the castle and aircraft museum.)
Quedlinburg is a World Heritage Site, and visits to the main marketplace and/or the abbey area are very worthwhile. One way of getting to Quedlinburg is by early bus (journey time is about an hour) and use the morning to see the town. A Harz train leaves Quedlinburg around lunchtime - a diesel unit for the short journey to Gernrode before connecting to steam-hauled working to Eisfelder Talmuhle. The unique locomotive 99 6001 is the regular traction for this train but cannot be guaranteed. This makes for a good afternoon trip, as the train also runs to Hasselfelde and back en route and covers all the Selketalbahn except for the very short branch line to Harzgerode.
There is enough time in Hasselfelde to stretch legs whilst the locomotive is serviced, takes water and runs round before continuing the journey. Hasselfelde depot still functions as a crew ‘signing on’ point but is now more of a museum. You are welcome to walk around if the doors are open. There are also a range of exhibits on the platform. On arrival at Eisfelder Talmuhle, three trains will converge on to this normally very quiet station at the same time. One is the return train to Quedlinburg, another is the daily working from Brocken to Nordhausen, and a diesel unit arrives destined for Wernigerode (you can get off this diesel train at Drei Annen Hohne and wait for the next steam train back to Wernigerode).
It is worth emphasising that photography is easy on the Harz. At Wernigerode there is a viewing platform on top of a building at the far end of the station platform, from where you can observe the depot. Generally, no one minds where you walk providing it is not dangerous. One less obvious rule is that entering buildings is definitely not allowed. You can often stroll around Wernigerode yard undisturbed at quiet times, but do not enter the shed building. (Hasselfelde depot is the only exception to this) You can go beyond platform limits without it being a problem at Drei Annen Hohne, but always be alert and be sensible. The same is the case at Eisfelder Talmuhle, where no-one worries if you walk along to the servicing point. Providing you look safe and keep well clear of train movements you are OK. Also do follow any instructions without question if asked. Whilst it is very much more relaxed than in the UK, you can soon notice that safety is a concern, even without petty restrictions.
Always make sure you don't get stuck anywhere. Most trains to termini form a return working within about twenty minutes of arrival otherwise there may be a long wait before the next train - it is important to make sure you can get back to Wernigerode at the end of the day! The Brocken line is the only exception to this advice, as it has a fairly intense service throughout the day. However, as it can be bitterly cold and windswept on the Brocken, you might want to be aware of when trains depart! It does have a warm cafe though! I always give these warnings, but I've never had anyone have any problems getting back on a night.
If you want to plan your days out before you go, the timetables are available on both the HSB and DB websites. Downloading the pdf of the full timetable from the HSB website is the best option as it indicates which trains are steam-hauled. The Harz timetable has been much the same for many years now, but times wobble slightly from season to season. Do check all times rather than relying on my ideas above as the timetable could be revised. If you have an up-to-date timetable it will be reliable, and you might note that connections are always held. The hotel holds up-to-date timetable leaflets as well as the Harz stations. The summer timetable should be available on the HSB website well before your departure date.
The hotels are very accommodating when it comes to mealtimes. Breakfast usually starts at 0700, but a Continental breakfast can be arranged before this time if you have an early start and often staff will insist on serving you something hot before official opening hours! It helps (as well as being courteous) to let reception know the night before if you are setting out early. They go out of their way to be helpful, and typically provide more than they promise. Ffestiniog Travel has used these hotels for many years and they have looked after us very well and anticipate such requests!
Day 6 - Departure comes all too soon, but there is still an interesting trip home to enjoy. This will almost certainly be by a different route to the outward journey. Typically, we go via Frankfurt (although many other routings are possible). In Frankfurt the InterCity hotel is next to the station, ideal for an overnight stay. The hotel provides a travel card for public transport in the area and most travellers make use of it with enthusiasts using it to explore local train services, while others enjoy walking into the city to admire the many fine buildings and use the travel card to return to the hotel.
Day 7 - We return to London, usually travelling direct to Brussels by ICE on the high-speed line. It is worth walking along to the coupe section behind the driver to see what high speed travel looks like. On an ICE3 train you get a driver's eye view. At Brussels we join the Eurostar, time for some last-minute purchases of beer or chocolates (both cheapest at the station Carrefour supermarket rather than the specialist shops or the fake “duty free”, and the supermarket has an excellent selection). All too soon we are back at St.Pancras! Home again!
A sample of our Harz Railway tour can be found on our website and can be tailored for private groups or an independent tailored rail holiday.