Under steam: The Harz narrow-gauge railways – a popular attraction for the entire Harz Mountains

In addition to the many attractions of the Harz Mountains, the narrow-gauge railways are a very special one. This is impressively confirmed again and again by surveys. On the way on narrow tracks at a leisurely pace, the steam-powered trains are worth a trip to the Harz Mountains for many tourists. The route leads through narrow gorges and dark fir forests all the way up to the highest peak of northern Germany, the Brocken. But it also leads through wonderful meadow landscapes in the Selketal. In order to enjoy the beauty of nature, there is hardly a better speed than the maximum 40 km/h possible. A comparison shows how valuable the historic steam trains have become for the Harz region: with its 140 kilometres, the narrow-gauge railways are Europe’s longest scheduled rail network used by steam trains.

He roars through the dark Harz spruce forests, roars over the mountain meadows, and confidently strives for the highest summit of the German North. No, we’re not talking about the red deer here, but about the “Harz Bull”, as some railway enthusiasts call the – with 700 HP – strongest steam locomotive of the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen GmbH (HSB) respectfully.

If you want to photograph or film the Brockenbahn during your hike to the Brocken, you can start from Oderbrück, for example, and walk about two and a half kilometres along the tracks. The whistling of the nostalgic steam locomotive can be heard for miles.

The machines, built in the 1950s in the GDR and called “Neubauloks”, are the high performers of the railway. As a rule, they pull the scheduled trains, while their siblings, who were built between 1897 and 1939, are more likely to be found in special train service. Even vehicles of a historic to modern railcar fleet are humming across the tracks. Among them, the oldest preserved vehicle of the former Gernrode-Harzgeroder Eisenbahn (GHE) from 1933 and the “Fischstäbchen” (“fish fingers”), so called because they had previously served on the East Frisian island of Langeoog.

“Europe’s longest rail network with scheduled steam”

With 140 kilometres of track, “The Largest of the Small” is Europe’s longest scheduled rail network with steam trains. For many visitors from all over the world, the meter-gauge railway is the main reason for a journey to Germany’s northernmost low mountain range. Around 600,000 of them came to the Brocken in 2017, which accounts for around two thirds of HSB’s sales. 262.000 passengers travelled with the “Harzquerbahn”, mostly in the Nordhausen area.

The narrow-gauge network
Passengers 2017*
Brockenbahn 19 km 600.000
Harzquerbahn 60,5 km 262.000
Selketalbahn 60,9 km 89.000
Total length 140,4 km *Special rides: 55.000

A completely undeserved shadowy existence with only 89,000 travellers leads the Selketalbahn, which is traced through a beautiful landscape. Not only railway freaks describe it as the most beautiful and varied section of the HSB.

With the approximately 55,000 participants on special trips, the company transports about a million passengers a year, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the mood of weather gods.

The Selketalbahn line is considered to be the most beautiful of the Harz narrow-gauge railways, as it runs through a variety of romantic landscapes.

“Of Harz Camels and cherry pickers.”

A model of success for the entire Harz region, that was not at all self-evident after the political change of 1989/90. The GDR Reichsbahn had long since decided to replace its worn steam engines with diesel locomotives (“Harz Camels”), which were converted from the standard-gauge to narrow-gauge. At most half a dozen steam veterans should remain and pull nostalgia trains.

But then was the fall of the Iron Curtain and neither the railway fans nor other travellers were delighted by the red oversized “Harz Camels”, which emitted blue diesel swaths, while swaying across the tracks.

The secret: lots of water and hard coal
From Wernigerode it is 33 kilometres to the Brocken – with an altitude difference of 900 metres. The locomotive evaporates 8000 liters of water and burns at least one and a half tons of hard coal. 60 heaters and locomotive drivers are on the road on a total of 25 steam locomotives – including the Mallet of 1897.

Also, a group of “cherry pickers”, who only intended to operate the profitable Brocken route and give up the rest of the network, heard little applause for their idea. Angry protests not only from dedicated railwaymen, who even painted their anger on the wagons, but also from regional and national politicians, tourism experts and an army of railway enthusiasts, soon ruined the plans. On 1 February 1993, the railway was transferred from the Deutsche Reichsbahn to the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen GmbH, a regional operator.

“Rolling monuments of the imperial era”

For more than a quarter of a century now, the railway has remained tourist magnet and popular figure, but also has been a challenge for those responsible. Keeping a fleet of vehicles running, from rolling monuments of the imperial era to modern hybrid trams, requires competence and vision. Furthermore, not only the vehicles, but also the preservation of the unique overall network, which was extended in 2006 to the World Heritage City of Quedlinburg, costs money. Moreover, the qualified employees want to see a decent number on the monthly pay slip. Hardly a German railway that is not looking for personnel at the moment.

In 50 minutes to the Brocken
The 700 hp steam locomotive takes passengers from Drei Annen Höhne to the Brocken in about 50 minutes. The track was opened in 1899 and offers fantastic views when the weather is fine.

Especially the hard work on the steam locomotives demands full commitment, so the temptation is great to climb into the bright, clean air-conditioned driver’s cab of another – steamless – railway operator. If only there weren’t the fascinating myth of “King Steam” and the lifeblood ….

Pure steam locomotive romance: Double exit in Alexisbad.

“Long overdue gap closure”

Unfortunately, despite several attempts, it has not been possible until today to restore Braunlage to the East Harz narrow-gauge network. Before the war there was a link between the former Südharzeisenbahn (SHE) and the former Nordhausen-Wernigeroder Eisenbahn (NWE), which was later interrupted by barbed wire.

Although this unspeakable border has long been a thing of the past, Germany’s federal state borders are unfortunately also borders. So far, Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt have not been able to agree on a closure of the gap – despite numerous attempts. Often this was decided “right at the top” in Magdeburg and Hanover. Of course, the realization costs money, a lot of money. And not only for construction, but also for operation and maintenance of the infrastructure.

Accessible again since 1992: The Brocken summit
For 30 years, the Brocken train route was only used by GDR border guards. It was not until 1992 that scheduled operation was resumed for everyone.

Here both sides should pull together. Animosities such as those experienced during the creation of the National Park Harz sometimes reminded us of little quarrelsome children. And certainly, in this context one must also consider among other things the “Skischaukel” as an important factor, which is supposed to make the Wurmberg, the most attractive ski area in the Harz mountains, accessible from the east side.

“Who kisses Sleeping Beauty awake?”

By the way, certain differences and sensitivities that existed here in the past are completely uninteresting for today’s Harz visitors and holidaymakers. Normal holidaymakers are not interested in whether they are in the Lower Saxonian or Saxony-Anhaltian or Thuringian part of the mountains. And while the beautiful Selke Valley offers very attractive and good gastronomic services here and there, other places on the banks of the Selke often lack ideas and professionalism. Who kisses Sleeping Beauty awake?

Steam in the Harz Mountains is a must for the author, but this historic diesel railcar, the oldest vehicle of the former GHE, is also attractive.

“Narrow-gauge railways as clamp”

The author, who ran after the “Quirl” of the Harzquerbahn as a young boy near the grandparents’ house and lived for many years in the western Harz Mountains, is very concerned whether “his” mountains have a good future. The unique narrow-gauge railways should be more than ever a clamp for the Harz Mountains. Because only the entire Harz has a future.

Photos and text: Heinz-Helmut Heidenbluth

For the Brockenbahn it is especially advisable to reserve a seat at the weekend.
Who is behind the HSB?
The Harzer Schmalspurbahnen GmbH (HSB) with headquarters in Wernigerode is mainly financed by the districts and municipalities on whose territory the trains are travelling.