Germany’s Harz Railway nonetheless has steam trains as soon as utilized by Soviet spies

(CNN) — Deep within the dense inexperienced forests of Germany’s Mittelgebirge central mountains lies a exceptional railway that has survived conflict, political upheaval, Chilly Warfare stress and repression, financial hardship and repeated threats of closure.

Little identified outdoors Germany, the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen — Harz Slender Gauge Railways, normally abbreviated to HSB — is likely one of the few locations on the planet nonetheless working common timetabled steam trains all year long.


And it isn’t only for vacationers. It is an built-in a part of the area’s transport community.

If the time period “slender gauge railway” conjures ideas of a cutesy Thomas the Tank Engine fashion operation, suppose once more. Whereas its rails is likely to be nearer collectively than your common commuter line, this can be a “correct” railway with an 140-kilometer (87-mile) community run by professionals to excessive requirements and carrying greater than one million passengers yearly.

Brutish black and pink steam locomotives, constructed within the Fifties and fantastically maintained by HSB engineers, haul trains of conventional balconied carriages filled with hikers and daytrippers into the Harz Nationwide Park.

The overwhelming majority of these passengers take a spectacular journey as much as the area’s highest peak, Brocken. It stands 1,141 meters (3,747 ft) excessive with a powerful 360-degree panorama and the possibility to go to a former Soviet-era eavesdropping station.

In summer season, as much as 11 trains a day slog up the mountain from the fantastically restored medieval city of Wernigerode to Brocken. However there’s a lot extra to the HSB than its showpiece mountain line.

Any customer to the world ought to make time to discover the underappreciated Harzquerbahn (Trans-Harz Railway) and Selketalbahn (Selke Valley Line).

To get away from the crowds, catch the every day steam prepare, which winds by way of the forest from the nation junction at Drei Annen Hohne to Nordhausen. You may even catch sight of a wild boar operating off by way of the bushes after having its lunch interrupted.

Alternatively, head for the UNESCO World Heritage city of Quedlinburg and revel in a meandering journey by way of the quiet Selke Valley to Alexisbad or Harzgerode.

‘Historic quirk’

The steam railway carries passengers to the summit of Brocken peak, as soon as the placement of a Soviet-era spy station.


Whereas the development for slender gauge railways throughout Europe has been one in every of contraction and closure since World Warfare II, the HSB community is notable for having really grown within the twenty first century. In 2005, it took over a five-mile customary gauge line to Quedlinburg, which had been closed by nationwide operator DBAG.

Public companies restarted in June 2006, with no less than two steam-hauled trains a day connecting with the nationwide rail community.

At this time, HSB trains run over 500,000 kilometers (311,000 miles) a yr of public companies, plus nostalgia specials utilizing classic trains.

“Its survival is a tremendous historic quirk,” says Tony Streeter, HSB skilled and former editor of the world’s largest steam journal, Steam Railway.

“If East Germany had survived for for much longer, then diesel locomotives would have changed the steam. Equally, in a Western nation, the railway would in all probability have been closed years earlier than — simply as its equal on the opposite aspect of the border really was.”

First proposed as early as 1869, the railway to the Brocken summit was the topic of early environmental protests, with critics involved that encouraging guests to the mountain would destroy its habitats. Regardless of this, the road railway opened on March 27, 1899, and rapidly grew to become a serious vacationer attraction.

Standing excessive above the encompassing panorama, battered by brutal climate from all sides, Brocken has a local weather extra akin to a mountain twice its peak, and historically noticed snow on its higher reaches between September and Could. This made it a magnet for winter sports activities fans as soon as the railway gave fast and direct entry to the mountain.

Ghosts within the fog

The wintry conditions on Brocken have played a role in creating myths.

The wintry situations on Brocken have performed a job in creating myths.

Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/DPA/AFP/Getty Pictures

Its dominance of the encompassing panorama has ensured Brocken’s vital position in myths and legends over many centuries.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe even featured it in his 1808 play “Faust,” the place witches collect on the mountain to rejoice Walpurgis Night time. Rock formations often known as “The Satan’s Pulpit” and “Witches’ Altar” are stated to have impressed Goethe’s work, however even now the Brocken spectre — an eerie impact brought on by shadows solid on the fog — is a typical phenomenon on this unusually misty mountain.

Regardless of the fixed prospect of fog and as much as 120 days a yr of snow, which often drifts deeper than the peak of HSB trains, guests proceed to flock to the summit — no less than till companies had been suspended throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. On the prime, the Brockenhaus features a lodge, eating places, a museum and botanical backyard, plus many kilometers of mountain climbing trails.

Its uncovered place and central location made it an apparent selection for a climate station and the world’s first tv transmission tower, accomplished in 1936 in time for the primary dwell TV broadcast of an Olympic Video games (which had been held in Berlin that summer season).

After World Warfare II, Brocken’s strategic location on the brand new divide between East Germany and West Germany was to result in a extra sinister position.

Though the mountain was partially open to vacationers between 1948 and 1959, from August 1961 onward, the world was declared a navy exclusion zone by the East German authorities and the summit plateau was sealed behind a concrete wall. The railway was retained as a provide route for troops and intelligence brokers however wouldn’t see vacationer visitors once more till 1990.

Intensive navy installations had been constructed on and across the summit, together with two highly effective listening stations, codenamed Yenisei and Urian, run by Soviet navy intelligence and East German state safety.

Spies and snowboarding

Brocken's elevated position on the border of East and West Germany made it ideal of eavesdropping.

Brocken’s elevated place on the border of East and West Germany made it ideally suited of eavesdropping.

Jens Schlueter/AFP/Getty Pictures

The amenities ignored a big swath of West Germany and had been in a position to seize a lot of Western Europe’s radio visitors, taking part in a key position in Chilly Warfare espionage and intelligence gathering actions.

On the western aspect, British troops and intelligence companies saved an equally shut eye on their neighbors, in addition to making the most of the superb snowboarding alternatives in winter.

Straddling what was, between 1949 and 1990, the interior border separating the Federal Republic of Germany and the socialist German Democratic Republic, or GDR, the Harz mountains had been on the entrance line of the Chilly Warfare.

A large strip of forest was cleared throughout the area, ignored by armed troopers in watchtowers and guarded by excessive fences, razor wire, minefields and booby traps on the japanese aspect — a vivid bodily manifestation of Winston Churchill’s metaphorical “Iron Curtain.”

Near the hamlet of Sorge, which interprets into English as “Fear,” the Harzquerbahn runs within reach of the previous border. Even 30 years after Germany was reunified, the slowly disappearing hole within the forest and an deserted watch tower present a stark reminder of how delicate this frontier was till 1989.

The close by village of Elend (“Distress”) can also be served by the HSB, a reminder of historic hardships endured by the native inhabitants. The Harz has an extended historical past of mining for lead, silver, coal and different minerals. Distress was additionally dropped at the area by the Nazi regime of 1933-45, which constructed the infamous Mittelbau-Dora pressured labor camp close to Nordhausen in 1943.

Round a 3rd of the 60,000 inmates despatched to the camp to fabricate V-1 and V-2 flying rockets towards the tip of World Warfare II died in its horrific situations. The surviving prisoners had been liberated by US troops in April 1945.

On the japanese aspect of the border after 1961, native residents endured draconian restrictions supposed to stop them fleeing to West Germany. Particular permits had been required (and sometimes refused) to go to from different areas of the nation, even to see members of the family.

For 45 years after World Warfare II, the Harz Slender Gauge Railways soldiered on in a time warp. Political restrictions and an absence of funding meant that the railway was barely modernized, and as personal automobiles had been a relative rarity in East Germany, the previous trains remained vital for native journey and freight.

Within the late Nineteen Eighties, the East’s state railway operator, Deutsche Reichsbahn, made strikes to interchange the steam locomotives with customary diesels rebuilt to run on the narrower tracks, however virtually as quickly as they had been launched, the autumn of the Berlin Wall modified the world — and the position of the railway — for good.

Nostalgia journey

Snow levels sometimes reach the top of train carriages.

Snow ranges generally attain the highest of prepare carriages.

Matthias Bein/DPA/AFP/Getty Pictures

As early as December 1989, Brocken was reclaimed by the general public throughout an indication stroll, regardless of the gates and partitions constructed by the Russian military to stop entry to the summit.

From 1990, the navy installations had been regularly run down, with the final Russian soldier leaving the Brocken in March 1994. Throughout this time, the railway performed its half in eradicating redundant tools, supplies and troopers from the mountain.

Nonetheless, the continued operation of the railway was removed from sure till railway fans joined forces with politicians to present it one other likelihood.

With regional backing, the monitor was renovated, and vacationer trains proudly returned to the summit in September 1991.

Two years later, because the Deutsche Reichsbahn was being ready for a merger with its West German counterpart, the community was privatized below the HSB model.

Though organized as a non-public firm, the HSB is communally owned and supported by the states of Sachsen-Anhalt and Thuringia, which subsidize the loss-making operation as a social necessity and vacationer attraction.

Whereas Brocken trains are hauled by these magnificent steam locomotives, most different HSB companies are within the arms of diesel railcars, which had been launched from the early Nineties in an effort to cut back prices.

Elevated automotive possession and altering journey patterns have seen passenger numbers decline away from the Brocken line, with the remaining companies requiring in depth public subsidy.

In recent times, that help has been below risk as operating prices have risen, however a current renegotiation has secured funding till 2035 value round €90 million ($106 million) plus €5m a yr till 2024 for infrastructure upkeep, making certain that guests can proceed to take pleasure in an unforgettable steam-powered journey by way of the Harz area for a few years to return.

Tony Streeter provides, “It has modified through the years in fact, however whereas GDR options corresponding to Trabant automobiles have gone, the railway is probably extra particular now than it has ever been. Its scale means it actually is exclusive, and a exceptional reminder of instances previous. Time for UNESCO to have a look?”

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