The International Steam Pages

A Country of Two Halves – former Czechoslovakia

Robert Hall wrties with some affection about a country which is no more...

I have a bit of a tendency toward what our American friends call “pity parties”, concerning negative things in my gricing career over the decades – plain bad luck, and bad decisions on my part; leading to less achieved, than might have been wished. One of my bigger non-success-stories in this line (both “my doing”, and “out of my hands”) has been the country which until 1993 was Czechoslovakia. My ventures there a little over thirty years ago, had long seemed to me such a disaster (in some respects, in ugly ways) that an entertaining “Travellers’ Tale” could not be made out of them. Have recently, though – via time’s healing properties, or whatever it may be – undergone a change of mind. Thus, experiences herewith in the lands of the Czechs and Slovaks.

Czechoslovakia long seen by many, as an attractive place: scenically beautiful, its capital a cultural jewel which luckily escaped bad damage in World War II; inhabited by likeable folk; and rail-wise, with a greatly varied steam fleet including many cutting-edge modern steam types unique to the country (4-8-2 tender, and 4-8-4 tank, classes, seeming to the fore)– and in the context of a generally awkward situation, far from the most gricer-unfriendly nation in the Eastern Bloc. I was aware of its attractions, from an early date; things just so fell out that railway-wise, my heart came to be given first and foremost to Poland – in some ways, a more difficult and frustrating target – but “so it was”.

I had great hopes of a “much-in-little” brief visit to Czechoslovakia, in 1977 – my then-very-scarce cash carefully got together for same. The plan – a group visit by a prominent steam-touring-abroad undertaking – was for a long weekend, based in Prague, but looking at intensive bashing, not relaxation: much of the west of the country was hoped to be covered in the planned four days. All would have been well; but shortly before “D-Day”, it so happened that turmoil came about in Czechoslovakia, concerning the “Charter 77” manifesto by numerous dissidents there. Things became very tense in “Czecho”. The tour outfit took the only measures that they sensibly could, and cancelled the visit. In the circumstances, at best the group would have been confined to the immediate Prague area, and what steam could be got there; at worst (no benefit of hindsight available) the Russians could have come crashing in with fire and sword...

In articles about Poland, I have mused on gricers and their “fiddling during Rome’s burning”, vis-à-vis heroic folk fighting – at great risk to themselves -- against a cruel and stupid system imposed on their countries as a consequence of superpower-politics. Being a gricer, though – and no fanatical zealot on the left or right of the political spectrum – I can both applaud the resisters, and shame-facedly sympathise with the gricers; at least in wishing that Eastern Europe’s patriots might, in a few instances, have timed things otherwise. Thoughts come to mind, of reported “bumper stickers” on cars in Britain in late summer 1939, to the effect of, “Hold on, Adolf ! Let us have our hols first !”

At all events – “1977 didn’t happen”. Sadly, Czechoslovakia was one of the earlier European Communist countries to get rid of steam – official announcements told of the state railway system (ČSD) making an end of regular steam working, in latish 1980. Approximately at the same time, journals with an interest in rail doings on the continent of Europe told of “everyday” steam working observed in Czechoslovakia, subsequent to the announced end-date – suggesting that the official dictum was propaganda, rather than what was really happening. With picture long got, of Communist regimes being extremely big on “bovine excrement for cosmetic purposes”; I conceived hopes of “steam living on after death, in Czecho”. Trying, if you will, for credibility: but, this kind of stuff was not unheard-of elsewhere, including outside the Communist world. For a considerable spell of time after the Turkish state railways’ officially announcing their abolition of steam traction, daily steam working continued on a few sections of their system.

I determined to do a bash of Czechoslovakia in early 1981, hoping to find steam in action, regardless of what perceived fodder-for-the-credulous might say. As told of in a previous “Tale” of mine, at that time I had an immense bee in my bonnet to the effect that one did not “go places and do things” solo – that branded one as a total loser. Unsurprisingly, I could find no fellow-gricer(s) interested in accompanying me on such a dubious voyage of exploration, with no guarantee of success. I finished up doing a week’s tour of Czechoslovakia in February 1981, with a chap whom I had fleetingly met via a social club to which I then belonged. This gentleman was not a railway enthusiast, but expressed interest in the chance to participate in such a way-out venture, to a part of the world to which he had never been. The whole thing turned out to be not a good idea: putting things briefly, he and I turned out to be a very “bad fit” as fellow-tourists – we were ill-matched character-wise, and not on the same page about a multitude of things. His initial interest in discovering what this railway hobby was all about, rather quickly turned to contempt for my weird obsessions in that sphere, and annoyance at being lumbered with them. Well before the end of the tour, each of us had become greatly desirous of murdering the other. At the distance of almost half a lifetime, I’ve ceased to think of him as a fiend – it was just, we were utterly not each other’s kind of guy; and (fill in corresponding uncharitable thoughts him-toward-me), he was a testy individual, tending toward conviction of his total rightness about all things in life – and, it emerged, he was fanatically anti-Communist, and had taken the opportunity of a visit to a Communist country, partly to have his confirmation bias thereon, further confirmed. (And throughout our time in Czechoslovakia, he gave vent to an endless verbal torrent of vitriol about how foul everything Communist, was.) I hold no brief for Communism, other than in respect of its side-effect of prolonging the life of regular daily steam in Eastern Europe – but taking a holiday to a place in which one is determined to hate absolutely everything, strikes me as a little odd.

My account of this tour will try not to dwell on relations with my companion, but on the less negative features which were encountered. With hindsight, I marvel at my having in those days, so bought into the mind-set which some hold, that “loners are pathetic and despicable – better to do ‘whatever’ in the company of someone with whom you are incompatible, than contentedly alone.” We live and learn, or don’t – sometimes the learning takes much longer than it should. Notes taken at the time, both of the Feb. ’81 bash and a brief repeat visit in May of that year, are unfortunately now lost to me: memory has to do what it can.

The February week involved flying to Prague; thence, a clockwise circuit round much of the country, trying to focus on venues from which still-operating steam had recently been reported. Travel was by rail: no Czechoslovak equivalent then, of Poland’s invaluable “Polrailpass” rover ticket – one had to announce and pay for each individual journey at the booking office. I had got the phrasebook and found out the necessary spiels – plus, using German often helped, and booking clerks were on the whole patient and considerate with the daft “outlander”. (The language stuff was down to me; my companion had the traditional “John Bull” attitude about idiot foreigners and their baboon-jargons.) Off from the capital, first journey not quite 100km due north to the city of Děčín, near the East German border; where we spent the first night. All travel on ČSD was of course electric or diesel; “which stretch was which”, in most cases, is now blurred, but I do recall that Prague to Děčín was on an electric-hauled express.

Děčín established a depressing pattern which came to obtain throughout the tour. In the declining years of ČSD steam, the most-used steam “maid of all work” – in a parallel role to BR’s “Black Fives” and 8Fs – had rather come to be the class 556 2-10-0; some five hundred of them built during the 1950s, substantial two-cylinder machines which would however pretty much “go anywhere and do anything”. What I found at Děčín was: the locoshed – easily observable from the station – held numerous electric and diesel locos, and one class 556 in steam, but motionless. One deduced, reserve power quickly deployable in case of a modern-traction failure; or possibly, on stationary-boiler duty. When I was “in-country”, at all events: that situation, in various places, was all that we saw re ČSD “active” steam – it wasn’t a case of steam found frequently at work, although officially extinct. A random week’s tour in early 1981 by a random twit, using the poorish and vague “intelligence” available to him, of course proves nothing – there could have been fine ČSD steam action going on, on some days and places in that general time-frame, and I was perhaps just unlucky; however, “thus it was”.

To tell and tie up the rather sorry “in-steam” tale, and go on to other things: after Děčín, we moved on 60km due east to Liberec, near the meeting-point of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland, where we spent a couple of nights – interesting stuff thereabouts, potential-steam and also non-steam. Same story with Liberec locoshed, as with Děčín; one standby 556 in steam but immobile, and that was all. At another venue further east in what is now the Czech Republic, told of re possible steam action in the reports, name unfortunately forgotten – the same: one immobile in-steam 556 on shed. I’d wanted to cover as much as possible of the country, as well as to steam-hunt: furthest penetration east was Margecany in Slovakia, a big junction some 100km west of the Ukrainian border and of the end of “Slovakia / former Czecho / whatever” – told of in the reports read, as a possible surviving steam venue. The identical story here: a 556 in steam, static, on shed.

The only observation of anything steam-powered turning a wheel, in my February tour, was at an industrial site, pre-told-of by the journal “World Steam” – a short line serving a sand quarry at Jestřebí, not very far from Brno in the eastern parts of what is now the Czech Republic. Pilgrimage duly made, by train – and promised activity duly seen, with a relatively modern class 423 2-8-2T – with Giesl ejector, applied to many locos in the latter years of Czechoslovak steam – energetically working sand trains to the ČSD interchange point. Photos (direly bad, long since vanished, no loss) duly taken, with “your correspondent” feeling intrepidly James-Bond-ish in doing so -- nobody at the site seemed to notice or care. The 2-8-2T concerned, might have been transferred from ČSD’s steam fleet, into industrial service; but in the Communist bloc, such matters were more fluid than in the West – in principle, “everyone owned everything”, so it wasn’t a big deal.

It worked out, that I briefly revisited Czechoslovakia a few months after the Feb. 1981 bash. In May ’81, a big long-weekend “steam shindig” was held, supposedly commemorating the 130th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin – Prague rail route. Steam locos, preserved or in-service-anyway, from Czechoslovakia and East Germany, hauling various specials for the weekend, centred on Děčín. Things so sorted out that a couple of fellow-gricers – with whom my first contact had been, trying to organise a February steam-hunting trip, to which they couldn’t be tempted – felt the urge to go to this event, and suggested that I accompany them on a car-borne visit including same. Their plan was to do the Děčín weekend steam festival, and then carry on for a spell bashing still-real steam in nearby East Germany. My work situation at the time did not allow me to accompany them into EG; but I was able to take the time off for the Děčín doings, travelling out by car with them Britain – Czecho, but flying home from Prague at the end of the weekend. In addition, the chance was offered of meeting up again, with a friendly and liberal-minded local whom I had encountered in February. This scheme, thus gone ahead with.

In the main, I am no lover of steam specials on systems from which regular steam has been eliminated – such doings seem to me, totally fake and “plastic”. Sometimes, though, friendship / sociality trumps prejudice. So it was for me in May 1981. I did my best to put preconceived notions aside, and just enjoy the events for what they were – including travelling on an “under-the-wires” special from Prague to Děčín, double-headed by preserved pre-WW2 Pacific 387.043, and modern 4-8-2 498.106. Assorted shortish special runs happened behind various preserved locos (Czechoslovak, and German) from Děčín to various destinations on branch lines radiating thence. Pleasant -- but in my bigoted view, not what steam is really about. (From end-of-regular-steam up to the present day, many ČSD steam locos of various classes have been preserved in working order, basically in a context of their working “one-off” specials on the essentially steamless system. In principle, a thing to applaud; just not a scene which, personally, does much for me.)

There was attending the steam-fest, a group of enthusiasts from a British society, to whom I gravitated; did much of the stuff, in their company. The two friends with whom I’d travelled to Czecho, were of the “chase trains by car and phot them therefrom” persuasion – I preferred travelling on said trains. On the home-going day after the steam-fest, there were problems on the Děčín – Prague line occasioning a bad delay to the Prague train relied on by most in the group, to get them to the capital in time to catch the flight to London, on which same flight I was booked. I, then working for a rather harsh and unforgiving employer, panicked and went over-budget to get a taxi for the 100km or so, from Děčín to Prague airport. At the airport, I met the society group guys – their train had in fact shown up in time to get them to Prague and make the flight. Ah well, Sod’s Law – if I’d stuck with them, the flight would have been missed and I’d have lost my job...

Steam aside, I found Czechoslovakia an engaging place. Attractive scenery – in parts, especially on the fringes and within Slovakia – finely hilly-to-mountainous. Interesting railway scenes, above-and-beyond steam – the country had and has, some public narrow-gauge sections, but those are few and far between in comparison with those of neighbouring lands, and long steamless; I have no first-hand experience of the Czechoslovak narrow gauge. Liberec, mentioned above, had in 1981 – recent reports would imply, still has – a rail route running some 20 / 30 kilometres eastward, to Harrachov on the Polish border, with a potential rail link through to Szklarska Poręba Górna on the Polish side. In 1981, with co-members of the Soviet bloc sealed-off from each other as meticulously as enemy countries were, the Czech workings terminated at Harrachov. Just across the border, the scenic branch line from Szklarska Poręba Górna to Jelenia Góra was operating with total TKt48 2-8-2T haulage on passenger workings; I did briefly doubt my sanity for having gone to Czechoslovakia, in the light of what was going on next door... 

Have observed in previous pieces, that some countries (e.g. France) fell deeply in love from an early date, with the idea of self-propelled internal-combustion railmotors for less-intensively-used passenger services; others (e.g. Great Britain) basically did not. Impression got in 1981, was that Czechoslovakia was one of the countries which had well-and-truly got the railmotor bug – a mind-boggling variety of such conveyances, seen and in some instances, travelled on. A return trip from Liberec to Harrachov, was undertaken – diesel railcars, the conveyance used. For the last 10km or so from Tanvald to Harrachov, the line’s climb was – for all that I know, still is – so steep that rack-rail is needed to accomplish it. (I had somehow known of this, prior to undertaking the tour – it was not an “amazing discovery”.) The railcar in which the final ascent to Harrachov was made, was rack-equipped.

Further on, much fine scenery passed through – often, alas, at night, with overnight rail runs being used to avoid hotel-staying expenses. An excellently scenic daytime journey was had, on an all-stations working which occupied much of a short February day’s worth of daylight, over the splendidly hilly 120km-odd from Margecany to Banska Bystrica. Great fun to travel over, albeit diesel-hauled. A more recent report, mentions this line’s including a spiral – whether I was at the time aware or unaware of this, I don’t recall noticing it in the course of the run. Relations with companion had become by this time, decidedly toxic – this may have accounted for a certain amount of distraction from what being traversed. Return to Prague was achieved by way of Bratislava, involving much overnight travelling.

The Czechs struck me as a pleasant and sociable folk – in theory, a thing to be applauded – in practice, for one afflicted with gricing-mania (uncomfortable comparisons nowadays, with Sheldon of “The Big Bang Theory”?), this has its downside. The train-travelling gricer wants to enjoy and observe the scene from the window of the train on which he’s travelling, and concentrate on same, and likely make notes. With absolutely no ill-will toward his fellow-passengers, he just wishes for them to let him alone to do his individual stuff. It would seem that some nations and their cultures require people to “chat up” people, wherever the encounter may happen, and require the “victim” to vigorously chat in response; whereas in other places, the norm is “mind your own business and leave others alone to mind theirs”. Re all which I have heard and experienced in my own country: the ultimate in the former camp, is Italy – whereby I am inclined to feel thankful that Italy and its railways have never held much appeal for me, so that I’ve never been there.

World War 2 memoirs tell of escapes from prisoner-of-war camps in Italy, being horribly difficult. The drill was to get out of the camp and get on a northbound train, with the objective of reaching Switzerland. Escapers usually came to grief because of Italians’ great sociability and loquacity – their immediate train-neighbours took an intense interest in them – engaged them in conversation, told all about themselves and their nearest and dearest, and wished to know the same about their fellow-travellers. Not a function of wartime spy-mania, although no doubt, in that capacity, useful for the authorities – just the normal way of Italy and its culture. POW escapes from Germany were, in this respect, easier; Germans, when allowed to be themselves, incline to the “mind your own business, let others mind theirs” behaviour trend.

Per my 1981 experience, the Czechs would seem in this matter, likely to occupy second place to the Italians. Frequently, travelling on trains or in other circumstances, a local would initiate conversation. Many Czechs spoke English, frequently very well; conversing with them was often interesting, but when travelling by train, I wanted just to grice – as above, no animus against the would-be chat-er; just, “this isn’t the time”. However, with most people being oblivious to railway enthusiasts and their strange ways, there’s no means of nicely explaining and negotiating this matter; and one tends to feel like a heel, for rudely brushing off the well-intentioned local, in whose country one is a guest, and who wishes to talk with one. It could not be worked out, for my companion for the February week to do the chatting, freeing me up to grice; he was in general an awkward sod, and had quickly made the judgement that gricing was idiotic...

Even when the Czech local and the visitor had no language in common, that did not always dissuade the determinedly chatty. On one train journey, we were engaged in conversation by a nice monoglot middle-aged lady – if ever there were a situation of “communicate, or die trying...” One gathers that it is possible for people with no shared language, to talk with each other in their respective languages, and achieve a remarkable degree of comprehension. There comes to mind the tale from India in the old days, of a Scottish soldier, and a Gurkha who effectively knew no English, chatting happily with each other in their respective tongues and understanding each other wonderfully. It would seem to me, though, that to achieve this feat, the participants need to like, and be interested in, each other; and to be ready to invest much attention in the conversation. In this case, I just wished that the old biddy would go away and let me enjoy my grice; and my companion was basically not a warm, touchy-feely kind of person – communication did not work. Subsequent research (at the time, it was just annoying and bewildering) revealed that the lady thought that my companion looked very much like a famous Czech actor. Her attempt to convey this, revolved largely around saying over and over again, “divadlo... kino...” “Kino” was self-explanatory; “divadlo”, I later learned, means “theatre”; but at the time, for us – not wanting the conversation anyway – it could have meant anything from “probably” to “bandersnatch”, and its being repeated umpteen times, did not make it any clearer. As the exponents of etiquette are fond of recommending, “know your audience”...

We found this thing observably different in Slovakia. Differences of sundry kinds, between the Czechs and the Slovaks, seemingly united mostly by their similar languages -- the two countries’ going their separate ways in 1993 (happily, without bloodshed) would appear to have been a good idea; and their being made into a single nation, one of the not-so-good ones hit on in the sorting-out after the First World War. The Czech Republic, and Slovakia, both border on Poland; picture generally got, is that the Czechs and the Poles are neighbours rather in the way that England and France are – very different from each other, and tending to dislike each other for numerous reasons. Slovaks and Poles have more in common, and on the whole are mutually on the same page. Among other things, Catholicism seems strong in Slovakia, and Poland; the majority of Czechs – this considerably predating the Soviet-satellite era – while mostly nominally Catholic, tend effectively not to put much stock in religion. I always found in Poland, that on the whole the national culture tends to be on the “mind your own business, let people alone” side of the fence – mercifully, for a train-travelling gricer. The same mind-set seemed, from 1981 experiences, to obtain in Slovakia; a considerable relief after doings a little further west.

Another – extremely trivial – difference found "back then" between the Czech lands, and Slovakia: in refreshment places in the Czech part of the country, tea (always “black”) was served with a slice of lemon – when said slice of lemon was to be had, which it usually wasn’t. (With Cuba “on side”, sugar was always available.) In Slovakia, tea came not with lemon, but with a little saucer of some red substance, which I reckoned to be something like rose-hip syrup; found it to go quite nicely in black tea. Whatever it was, it was always available – one presumes, a local product independent of importing vicissitudes, in a country beset with all kinds of shortages.

One of the fellow-railfans with whom I went to the May ’81 Děčín jamboree, was of approximately my age – he was born early in 1947. Not by nature a great success with the opposite sex, he decided in the mid / late 1960s to put girls “on hold” until the – clearly not far off – end of steam on British Railways; pursuit of the decreasing remnants of which, anyway took up most of his free time and money. He was not one of my ilk, that got keen on steam and railways abroad, well before British steam finished. Quite soon after “Black August 1968”, he managed to hook up with a girl, a fellow-student at university. This lady turned out to have a “civilian-type” interest in Eastern Europe; one summer vacation – by inference, 1969 – my friend and his girlfriend took an extended tour by car, around various countries in that area: if I recall rightly, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary – possibly, more. Friend held the view then, that gricing was widely considered a ridiculous and despicable activity -- one for nerds and overgrown schoolboys – “coming out” as a gricer, would be likely to count heavily against one re acceptance by the female sex. This being so, on the late-1960s Eastern European car odyssey, he concealed from his girlfriend, his interest in railways and steam traction – while silently looking on, and feeling increasingly interested.

In my perception, already an amazing feat of self-denial; but, astonishingly more of such – his girlfriend had contacts in Czechoslovakia, and a joint visit to that country was done the following summer – presumably 1970. For whatever reason, this was not a car-borne job; travel around the country (a fair amount embarked on) was by public transport, mostly by rail – involving much steam haulage and observed steam working. My friend continued to feign total disinterest in all that – per his account to me, by the time of this holiday, that had become decidedly difficult and painful; but, “ what with this thing and that”, he maintained the deception. He ultimately split up with the girl concerned; and in future times, came to realise that women tend to be more accepting of their menfolk’s eccentric pursuits, than he had imagined. His reticence vis-à-vis first girlfriend, is understandable: I salute him, though, for keeping it up. In his position (especially with me being a from-way-back fan of railways abroad) I just could not have managed his feat. In those circumstances – even in a situation of being in love with the most adorable woman on Earth, except for her having publicly pronounced that she would sooner take up with a serial killer, than a gricer – I’d have let her go, and opted for the steam. Friend subsequently developed a keen interest in steam abroad – it’s just that up to August 1968 he had been a “Britain-only” man.

Summing-up: “Czecho” -- lovely place, just wish I’d had more of a chance at it. “Epitaph” for so many gricers, for so many countries.

Rob Dickinson