History and Background on the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen, GmbH

  A 2-10-2T pounds upgrade with a revenue train in May 2009.

A 2-10-2T pounds upgrade with a revenue train in May 2009.


Editor's Note: Text adapted from a Trains Magazine article written and photographed by Davidson Ward and published in the Historic Trains Today issue of the magazine in May 2010.

Nestled in the shadow of the largest mountain in Northern Germany, the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways steam locomotive preparation yard is a constant bustle of activity. Anyone on the grounds early in the morning will witness six to ten steam locomotives hissing and simmering as though time had stood still, surrounded by the people who labor to get them ready for a hard day's work.

The Harz Narrow Gauge Railways, which owns 25 steam locomotives, 10 diesel railcars and 10 diesel locomotives to run more than 90 trains on any given summer day, has an 87-mile rail network, much of which is as modern as any mainline railroad to-day. With automatic block signals, centralized traffic control, automatic switches, welded rail, and steel ties, this railroad is anything but a typical tourist operation.

History of the HNGR

The Harz Narrow Gauge Railways (HNGR), known as the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen GmbH in German, has an incredibly dynamic and diverse history. Three private railroads surveyed and built the current rail network between 1886 and 1897 to serve the Harz region with both freight and passenger transportation. At the time of their construction, a narrow gauge of 1 meter (3 feet 3.25 inches) was selected for its lower capital cost and its ability to hug the sharp mountains, the same reasons some U.S. roads built 3-foot gauge lines.

Further, in 1899, the private railroads completed a tourist line which went between the mountain village of Drei Annen Hohne to the Brocken, the highest point in Northern Germany and the mythological home of the witches and devils described by the German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his play "Faust."

[Guido Kroll] Until the beginning of the Nazi regime in 1933, the railroads maintained a strong business. Then profits began plummeting, culminating in 1945 with the end of World War II.

"When the Russians finally reached Berlin and declared victory, the Americans had just arrived here in Wernigerode. In a deal to get a piece of the capital city, the Americans gave the Russians the entire state of Saxony-Anhalt. The communist rule that followed slowed modernization enough that steam locomotives were not phased out, rather new ones were built [in the 1950's]!" says Guido Kroll, [LEFT] manager of locomotives in Wernigerode.

The Russians and the East German National People's Army set up a lookout post on top of the Brocken and, for 28 years, from 1961 until 1989, prohibited civilians from going there; it was the perfect vantage point for overseeing West Germany. During this post-war period, the East German Deutsche Reichsbahn operated the railroads.

By the time Deutsche Reichsbahn was planning to dieselize the HNGR in the 1980s, the East German government had already placed the line under national preservation protection, shielding its remaining fleet of 26 steam locomotives from replacement (though 99 5904 was scrapped in 1990). After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Reunification of Germany, the newly formed Harz Narrow Gauge Railways took over the narrow gauge railroads on Feb. 1, 1993. Doing so made the HNGR the first non-federal railway company to provide regular freight and passenger service in the eastern part of the re-unified Germany.

Service in the Mountains

hat sets the Harz Narrow Gauge Rail-ways apart from almost every other tourist railroad in Europe and the United States is the broad spectrum of services it provides. Of course being able to run multiple steam trains 365 days a year is an incredible feat, but the sheer volume of ridership and scale of the company's undertakings are staggering.

Every year about 1.2 million people ride on HNGR trains. Of those, about 700,000 people travel as tourists up to the Brocken. The remaining 500,000 are a mixture of tourists traveling from city to city and locals using the railways as a means of everyday transportation.

The 87-mile HNGR system is the longest unbroken narrow gauge rail system in Germany. The system is made up of three interconnected railroads: the Brocken Railway, the Trans-Harz Railway, and the Selke Valley Railway [SEE MAP BELOW]. The Brocken Railway is the most heavily traveled and, therefore, the most technologically advanced in the railway's network. Starting in Drei Annen Hohne, located deep in the heart of the mountains, trains from all termini meet at the four-track station and begin their journeys to the summit. With almost consistent 3.3-percent grades for its entire 12.4-mile route through the Harz National Park, the Brocken Railway places high demands on the steam locomotives carrying passengers through the spectacular surroundings.

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 The 37.3-mile Trans-Harz Railway has the largest proportion of local riders in the section Nordhausen - Ilfeld. The railroad goes from the large tourist destination of Wernigerode (also the railroads' headquarters), through Drei Annen Hohne, and on to Nordhausen. The heaviest commuter route is 9.3 miles between the cities of Nordhausen and Ilfeld, on the extreme southwest section of the line, and offers diesel rail buses and modern diesel-electric/electric hybrid light rail vehicles to carry people to and from work, school, and shopping. Like larger systems, Trans-Harz uses a zoned tariff system with automatic ticket dispensers on the train.

Surprisingly, the steepest and most geographically diverse section of the system is the 26.9-mile Selke Valley Railway, which does not come close to the geographic heights of the Brocken Railway. With grades of up to 4 percent and serving the city of Quedlinburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site, among myriad other historic towns, Selke Valley is known to the HNGR workers as the "most romantic section of the whole system."

During the summer months, one of the eight older locomotives pulls a special train from Wernigerode to the Brocken. One of HNGR's three serviceable 0-4-4-0 Mallets, which were built in 1897, 1898, and 1918, is often on the point [SHOWN AT LEFT].

In addition to the summer schedule, HNGR runs charter trains, photo freights, and trains to celebrate special dates such as Christmas or New Year's. The HNGR hosts other special programs such as a rock opera on the Brocken, an open-air rock musical on the Selke Valley Railway, trains with a Dixieland jazz band on board, and guided tours through its restoration shop. Patrons can find travel/lodging packages, which include steam locomotive transportation between the historic towns on the line with overnights in traditional hotels.

For those who enjoy hiking or mountain biking, the trains can transport people with their equipment to and from any one of their 47 stations and stops.

HNGR Infrastructure and Technology

"We always say, in regard to infrastructure, 'tradition and innovation' is our guiding theme," says Dirk Bahnsen, the leader of corporate communication for the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways.

When it comes to handling the massive number of riders transported by this railway every day, it is no surprise that it uses the best technology available."We operate with old trains, but very modern technology," Bahnsen says, adding that "on the most traveled line, the Brocken Railway, we employ the Technically Se-cured Train Control System."

Installed in 2001, this system employs lineside sensors, automatic switches, and more than 40 signal blocks on the section between Wernigerode and Brocken, and is a modern centralized traffic control system [RIGHT]. "There is one signal operator in Wernigerode and one in Nordhausen who sit in front of computer screens and can watch the trains move as dots across the screen," Bahnsen says. He explains that the operator, "has control of all train movements and switch positions," stressing that the multiplicity of signals keeps trains moving fluidly and safely.

On less-traveled segments of the rail-road, HNGR uses traditional signal methods and radio track warrant methods. Semaphore signals control the Nordhausen line. Some railroads are electrically operated, but the signal controller in Nordhausen watches a computer screen and pulls levers to operate the cable-semaphore signals. The Selke Valley Railway uses a centralized radio control system similar to track warrant control, giving trains authority from station to station or point to point.

Unlike any other narrow gauge railroad in Germany, the HNGR continues to expand its system through new construction. The abandonment of a standard gauge line between Gernrode, which was the former end point of the Selke Valley Railway, and Quedlinburg, enabled the HNGR to use an existing right-of-way to access the tourist mecca of Quedlinburg. With work beginning in April 2005, the expansion was the first new narrow gauge track construction in Germany in more than half a century. Funded by federal and local public sources, HNGR completed the new 5.2-mile line using concrete ties and welded rail, and opened it in March 2006, less than one year after breaking ground.

Since its opening, the Selke Valley Railway has experienced better rider-ship than ever before.

Rolling Stock on the HNGR

Maintaining the 25 steam locomotives and 88 passenger cars, let alone all of the diesel railcars, diesel-hydraulic locomotives, and light rail vehicles, is no small undertaking. The HNGR's backshop is capable and qualified to do almost any repair. More than 45 people work full time on any given day, changing oil on diesel locomotives, casting new bearings, and performing required inspections on steam locomotives.

"We do everything aside from complete boiler construction and frame reconditioning," a shop worker says. "For these tasks, we ship our locomotives to Meiningen," which is home to the Deutsche Bahn steam loco-motive shop, employing more than 120 full-time locomotive mechanics to keep the country's fleet in service.

On a daily basis, Harz Narrow Gauge Railways' workers prepare and maintain the road's steam locomotives and other equipment just as it has for its entire history. Sitting in his office at the base of the red dispatching tower in Wernigerode, Kroll calls out last names of paired crew members and assigns them to their individual locomotives and trains: the hostler (who keeps all six or more steam locomotives fired up over night), the crew of the first two trains, and the crew of the switching locomotive, usually a diesel.

Steam begins to fill the air surrounding the four-track preparation area as the locomotives get ready to start their day. While the firemen and engineers prepare their locomotives, Kroll arranges the so-called "reserve" locomotive to fill in if any other steam locomotive should need a replacement.

"If we guarantee that a steam locomo-tive will pull the train, we mean it" Kroll says, cleaning the fire with a rake [RIGHT]. "We take great pride in these machines and our work; we love what we do." An employee for Deutsche Bahn before transferring to the HNGR in 2006, Kroll says he finds much more satisfaction in his work now that it involves steam.

Before long, one hears a distant rumble as a coach train comes into view, being pushed by a diesel and guided by a worker standing on the leading platform with their remote controller. The first steam crew, having coaled their engine with the blue clamshell crane and watered it from an authentic water stand, radios the dispatcher for jurisdiction out of the locomotive preparation yard. The crew works their way slowly over the greasy rails, enters the main line, and hooks up to their train.

Repeated at least five more times in the first half of the day, and reversed in the evening, this process testifies to the energy and admiration that go into keeping this steam railroad atmosphere alive.

"We could all sell shoes or we could all sell drinks, but it is not as much fun as selling steam locomotives" Bahnsen says.

When asked about the future, specifically in terms of tourist railroads in America that have dieselized for economic reasons, Bahnsen is positive that HNGR steam is here to stay.

With its ridership increasing and its network expanding, Harz Narrow Gauge Railways will continue to be a unique bastion of steam in the heart of Europe. HNGR's diverse operations, from regional transit to steam-powered tourist trains, in con-junction with the vast scale and volume of its network, will continue to support the Northern Germany railroad into the 22nd century.

"We are a company, which is not looking for a maximum profit; rather we are a company, which will deal with the costs in order to maintain this historic service," Bahnsen says. "That's our mission."