The International Steam Pages

Steam in the Czech Republic, 2018

James Waite reports on a September 2018 visit.

The Hřebečov hills which separate the Czech provinces of Moravia and Bohemia contain shale and low-grade coal deposits which have been worked at least since the 19th century. Demand increased when a fireclay factory was built at Mladějov, at the foot of the hills, in 1910. One of the shale pits was close by but it was soon worked out and shale extraction was concentrated at Nová Ves and at Hřebeč further south where the deposits were more extensive.

Production at Hřebeč expanded greatly towards the end of the First World War and it wasn’t long before thoughts turned to rail transport. Construction of a 60cm gauge line probably began in the closing months of the war. It ran northwards from Hřebeč, passing Nová Vesand hugging the contours of the hills until it reached a point above Mladějov. From there a funicular was built to carry the shale down to the factory. The system opened in 1919.

Trans-shipment to the funicular severely limited capacity and in 1922 a new line was built from a junction near Nová Ves. It followed a steep route down the hillside and after a 180 degree curve entered the fireclay factory yard, 10.9km away from Hřebeč. In its new form the railway began a long period of service until the factory closed with little notice on 31st December 1991. It had become uneconomic when the country opened up to the west after the end of socialism.

In its earliest years it was served by three second hand locomotives. No 1, a OK 0-4-0T dating from 1906, was probably used during its construction. No 2, a 0-6-0T, came from the Austrian army which designated it as class RIIIc. No 3 was another ex-army 0-6-0T also regarded as a class RIIIc but it was somewhat larger. The RIIIc’s weren’t very powerful but with their short wheelbase were well suited to the original line which had curves as sharp as 50m radius but not much in the way of gradients.

The extension to the factory was much more demanding but the Krauss factory at Linz came up with a radical solution. Many of the army’s RIIIc’s were surplus to requirements after the end of the war. Krauss rebuilt one which it had built in 1918, fitting an extra boiler ring and adding a single-axle Engerth half-tender at the rear, so increasing its power output without compromising its ability to negotiate sharp curves. The new machine was despatched to Mladějov in 1920. It retained its 1918 works number 7485 and plate though the “18” was ground off from its date and “20” was riveted on in its place. The locomotive became the railway’s new no 1, the OK being renumbered 4.

It was such a success that on 1st June 1929 an enlarged version was ordered, this time as an entirely new machine. By then Krauss’s business at Linz was at a low ebb and the locomotive was delivered little more than two months later as no 5, works number 1518. The Linz factory built only three later locomotives and closed the following year. The two Engerths handled most traffic on the railway until commercial operation ceased more than sixty years later. 

The only subsequent steam locomotive was the second No 4, one of a series of 0-4-0T’s built in 1951 to ČKD’s standard BS-80 design. It started life at a steelworks at Kosice in present-day Slovakia and arrived at Mladějov in 1964. With their fat, high-mounted boilers the BS-80s are reminiscent of many of Czechoslovakia’s post-war main line locomotives but No 4 was regarded as top-heavy at Mladějov and damaged the rail. It seldom ventured out from the shed.

Several small diesels for yard work were delivered, the first probably in the 1960s. Two large 0-6-0 L18H class diesels arrived from Faur in Romania in the early 1980s but, like No 4, were too heavy for the track and had to be sidelined until it was upgraded. This work was still in progress when the railway closed, leaving the Engerths still very much in charge with No 3 as a back-up. 

The OK locomotive was withdrawn soon after No 5’s arrival. No 2 worked until 1971 and became a source of spares for No 1 until its remains were sold, along with the second No 4, to a newly-established pleasure railway at Nitra in western Slovakia in 1987. Its boiler was subsequently used to refurbish another locomotive there. No 3 probably remained in service until later in the 1970s. It was donated to Pragues National Technical Museum in 1986, returned on loan to Mladějov in the 1990s and moved on to the Zastávka u Brna – Zbýšov museum railway as a static exhibit in 2005.

Despite being behind the Iron Curtain the railway and its remarkable locomotives became well-known amongst western enthusiasts in the 1970s and 1980s and received many visits. I’d planned to go there and thought I’d missed my chance with the closure. Happily the site was conserved and later reopened as a tourist line. Though derelict much of the factory at Mladějov is intact and the locomotive shed and yard are delightfully unspoiled. The work on the track which was begun in the 1980s has been completed and the two Faur diesels now work many services though there’s still some steam operation.

I visited for a photo charter in September 2018 which was blessed with glorious autumn sunshine. No 1 looked much as it had done for many years and the railway’s enthusiastic volunteers were very friendly and helpful. I was also shown another BS-80 locomotive which the railway acquired and began to restore in 2005. The work was nearly complete. It’s scheduled to make its first public outing on 4th May 2019 along with No 1 and is intended to take over steam operations when No 1 next requires heavy repair. 

Rob Dickinson